US: Proximity talks narrowed gaps

Palestinian Authority plays down reports of progress.

Mitchell Barak 311 (photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
Mitchell Barak 311
(photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
Senior US officials said Friday that significant progress had been made in Israeli- Palestinian proximity talks.
“We feel already in the little over a month that these talks have been going on, the gaps have narrowed, and we believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps to allow the sides to take that next step to the direct talks,” said Dan Shapiro, a senior Middle East adviser at the National Security Council.
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Speaking to reporters ahead of this week’s visit by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Shapiro said that effort would be a major focus of the conversation between the prime minister and US President Barack Obama.
He added that proximity talks “have really been quite substantive” and that the US had “engaged both sides on all the core issues that are relevant to this conflict.”
Israel has been opposed to talking about core issues in any format other than in direct talks, and has refused to negotiate on these matters during the proximity talks conducted by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who shuttled between Ramallah and Jerusalem for the fifth time last week.
The Palestinians have made addressing core issues during the indirect talks, specifically security and borders, a condition to moving to direct negotiations.
Still, Shapiro stressed that the US goal remains getting the two sides to direct talks.
The Palestinians also want to see the 10-month settlement housing start moratorium extended beyond its expiration in September, and the issue is expected to be raised when Obama and Netanyahu meet.
Asked about the American expectations, US officials focused on the need to have sides taking constructive steps that move toward direct talks.
“The president saw the moratorium as a very constructive step,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “And right now what we’re focused on is capitalizing on the momentum that’s been built in the proximity talks to continue to move forward to direct negotiations.”
Rhodes also noted that Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting comes after Obama hosted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last month and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier in June, both of whom discussed the need to move forward with the peace process.
In an interview with Channel 1 on Friday, Netanyahu refrained from commenting directly on the possibility that his government might extend the moratorium on new construction in the settlements beyond its end date of September 26.
He reference the November decision to implement the moratorium for only 10 months and said, “We made a decision; it has not changed.”
“We made the decision [to implement the moratorium] to help facilitate the start of direct talks with the Palestinians, but they refused,” he continued.
“Anyone who weighs the words and deeds of this government will see that it is one that wants peace, said Netanyahu. “We walked towards peace and they distanced themselves from it.
If they can't sit with us, how can we achieve peace?” It is impossible to have peace without speaking directly with the Palestinians, he said. He noted that he sits only 10 minutes away from Abbas’s Ramallah office, and yet he and Abbas do not speak directly with each other.
Addressing Abbas, he said, “I will go to Ramallah. You should come to Jerusalem. We must resume the negotiations so we can finish them.”
Netanyahu also sought in the interview to downplay accounts of increased pressure from Obama regarding Israel’s stance towards the Palestinians and talk of poor relations between the White House and the current Israeli government. He emphasized that Israel and the US continue to share a strong connection despite the perceived differences with the Obama administration.
The prime minister admitted that while Obama administration's approach towards Israel may be different from that of past US administrations, the US and Israel still share the same goals of preventing a nuclear Iran as well as achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
“There is a fundamental connection in basic interests between the US and Israel in two areas. One, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And two, to achieve an immediate peace between the Palestinians and Israel,” said Netanyahu.
In Washington on Friday, Rhodes also noted that Tuesday’s Obama- Netanyahu meeting comes after Obama hosted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia this past week and Abbas earlier in the month, both of whom discussed the need to move forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The meeting also follows Israel’s deadly raid on a flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade, for which Israel received widespread condemnation.
Though the US backed Israel’s right to maintain an arms embargo on the coastal strip, the Obama administration pressed Israel to ease up on the flow of civilian goods to Gaza, which Israel has begun to do.
Shapiro praised those efforts Friday as “a significant liberalization” of Israel’s policy, which the US president “welcomed.”
He added that Obama would be continuing discussions on the subject when he meets with Netanyahu, to “explore what additional steps are possible to continue to address what has been an unsustainable situation in Gaza.”
The easing of the Gaza blockade, the ongoing talks and America’s own imposition of sanctions on Iran longsought by Jerusalem have reduced some of the friction points that contributed to an intensely rocky spring between the countries’ governments.
Rhodes denied that there was an rupture, stressing, “There’s absolutely no rift between the US and Israel. This is a relationship that’s very strong and very important to the United States.”
Still, Tuesday’s meeting is widely viewed as due in part to a change in US strategy to reassure Israel and Israelis of its commitment to the Jewish state by emphasizing the strong ties between the countries.
The meeting is scheduled to feature an Oval Office press conference, after Netanyahu’s last White House visit in March took place under a total media blackout that was interpreted as a sign of the bad blood between the sides.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy indicated that he expects a very different reception this time around, joking that “there’ll be more cameras on that handshake than at a Dubai airport.”
He also suggested that the meeting was “doomed to succeed,” given how invested both sides were in showing a more positive image after the tensions of the spring.
After meeting with Obama and then with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday, Netanyahu will skip the usual trip to Capitol Hill and instead head to New York. His two days there will include addresses to Jewish groups and journalists.
A PA official, meanwhile, played down reports about progress in the proximity talks. Pointing out that Mitchell has visited the region 20 times since he was appointed special envoy to the Middle East, the official said: “[Mitchell] has heard only a few words from [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu, such as ‘I want to discuss this issue with Abbas’ and ‘We can’t talk about such important issues unless we sit together at the negotiation table.’” The official added: “Each time he comes to the Mukata, Mitchell begins his talks with President Abbas by stating that there’s nothing new with Netanyahu, who is insisting on discussing everything during direct talks.”
Meanwhile, Chief PA Negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Saturday that he was unaware of reports suggesting that the proximity talks had narrowed the gap between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Today I requested clarifications from the US administration about these reports,” Erekat said.
He said that the Palestinians did not hear about any progress during the meeting between Abbas and Mitchell last week.
In an interview published on Saturday in London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also dismissed US reports that talks are progressing, saying that the discussions were “going nowhere.”
Aboul Gheit criticized the Mitchell’s efforts, and said proximity talks could last another 10 years before yielding results.
“All the indications are that we are going about this the wrong way and so are likely to reach a crisis,” the minister said.

Khaled Abu Toameh and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.