US Special Envoy George Mitchell is hoping to announce the start of indirect “proximity” talks between Israel and the Palestinians during his current three-day visit here.
Anticipation of a breakthrough was high on Thursday night, despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reiterated refusal to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem as the Palestinian Authority has been demanding.
“There won’t be a [building] freeze in [east] Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said in an interview on Channel 2
ahead of a Friday meeting with Mitchell. “This is a red line, and I’m not crossing it.” Related: Giving ground on Arab east Jerusalem?
Mitchell’s arrival late Thursday afternoon marked his first return to Israel since the announcement of 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in early March, stymied the last attempt to launch the talks.
“Mitchell is here to work with both sides to advance the proximity talks,” an American diplomatic source said.
“We hope it is possible,” responded an Israeli official. “There is a very serious effort under way to make it happen.”
Netanyahu said in the TV interview that he was anxious to get talks going, and that “full understanding” had been reached on the need to do so without preconditions.
In advance of Mitchell’s arrival, senior US Middle East officials Daniel Shapiro and David Hale made a surprise visit earlier in the week.
“Mitchell wouldn’t have come if there hadn’t been progress” in the meetings those two officials held with their Israeli counterparts, a second Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post
But the Prime Minister’s Office denied reports that Israel had given the US a formal, written response to demands issued by the Obama administration for Israeli steps to advance the peace process. An Israeli official said that a response would be communicated in the coming days or weeks, but could not specify when.
For his part, Netanyahu insisted that reports of “lists” of American demands were “not true.”
US officials declined to comment on Netanyahu’s categorical refusal to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
In a general response to Netanyahu’s statements and the diplomatic activity around starting indirect talks, a State Department official said, “We asked for specific actions, and we have had ongoing discussions with the Israelis about those actions. Senator Mitchell is in the region now to continue those discussions.”
Outside of his stance on Jerusalem, Netanyahu has yet to formally state what further actions he plans to take to advance the peace process.
But it is expected that he will make a number of gestures to the Palestinians, including the release of prisoners and further easing of movement and access within the West Bank.
Earlier this week, the Post
reported that the IDF had plans to withdraw to the pre-second intifada line in the West Bank.
There has also been some media speculation that, in spite of Netanyahu’s tough stance on east Jerusalem, he might quietly refrain from new planning activity there.
Chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians expected Mitchell to deliver Washington’s response regarding the PA’s demand that Israel halt construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem as well as refrain from publishing new tenders for housing units.
“We still don’t know what Mitchell is carrying with him,” Erekat said.
Some top PA officials said they saw Mitchell’s presence as a sign of a “breakthrough.”
Erekat held Netanyahu responsible for the ongoing stalemate in the peace process and claimed that the Israeli government was trying to “thwart” the US-led effort.
Erekat said the Palestinians had previously agreed to launch indirect talks with Israel, particularly after they received the backing of the Arab League Foreign Ministers.
He added that Abbas had received a message from US President Barack Obama earlier this week reaffirming Washington’s commitment to pursuing efforts to achieve a two-state solution.
The message was delivered to Abbas by Hale during a meeting in Amman.
Israel, in turn, has blamed the Palestinians for lack of talks, which have been stalled for over a year.
Since coming into office, Netanyahu has insisted that the two sides talk directly without preconditions. Of the Palestinian insistence on a full building freeze, Netanyahu told Channel 2 that “they have gone too far out on a limb.” He added that they must find a way to let go of their preconditions.
Making progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would reduce Iran’s ability to divert attention from its nuclear program, National Security Adviser James Jones declared Wednesday.
“Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations,” Jones said at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran uses the conflict to keep others in the region on the defensive and to try to limit its own isolation. Ending this conflict, achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state would therefore take such an evocative issue away from Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas.”
There has also been speculation that the US is considering presenting its own peace plan, spurred largely by a meeting Jones had with former national security advisers advocating this position, but President Barack Obama has made statements this week suggesting this is not likely for now.
Jones, referring to recent “distortion and misrepresentation” of US policy toward Israel, used his address to stress the importance America placed on its relationship with Israel.
“Like any two nations, we will have [our] disagreements, but we will
always resolve them as allies,” he said. “And we will never forget that
since the first minutes of Israeli independence, the United States has
had a special relationship with Israel. And that will not change.”
Jones’s positive comments on Israel were echoed in a letter that Obama
sent to the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations on
Independence Day earlier this week, following conversations in which
Jewish leaders relayed concerns that many members of the community have
expressed about the administration’s stance toward Israel.
“Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven
connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that
threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to
secure peace and stability in the Middle East,” Obama wrote. “As we
continue to strive for lasting peace agreements between Israel, the
Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, all sides should understand that
our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable and that no wedge
will be driven between us.”