Officials: No confrontation expected with Mitchell

Netanyahu, Obama administrations working on new diplomatic policies; US envoy to hold talks in J'lem.

George Mitchell 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
George Mitchell 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Jerusalem does not expect any confrontation with the US when Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives Thursday for his first meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Officials in Israel are preparing for "a general discussion," with Mitchell trying to get a better reading on where the Netanyahu government is headed. Mitchell is scheduled to make stops in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority during his trip this week. He is due to come to the region now about every three weeks, and is expected to have an office set up in Jerusalem by July. Because the US envoy is expected to come so often, there is no sense in Jerusalem that every visit will be full of "high drama" or "fireworks." According to the new government's assessments, a clash assumes the two parties have well-defined polices that are in conflict with each other - something that is not currently the case, especially since neither the new Obama administration nor the Netanyahu government has completed its respective policy review. The prevailing sense in Jerusalem, the Post has learned, is that the Obama polices do not differ too greatly from those of the former Bush administration when it comes to the Middle East, regarding neither a two-state solution nor the settlements. There is little expectation in Jerusalem that Mitchell will be go very deeply into details of policy, well aware that the Netanyahu government has been in power for less than two weeks and still needs time to develop its diplomatic polices. The Prime Minister's Office is currently performing a comprehensive policy review, looking at the various understandings between the Olmert government and the Bush administration and the Palestinians, before setting policy. Government sources speculate that Netanyahu will use this period to formulate his own diplomatic initiative. Netanyahu's ideas are expected to be ready when he goes to the US for his first meeting with US President Barack Obama, which is expected to take place sometime in May, but not necessarily in time for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at the beginning of the month. Some of the Netanyahu government's underlying premises are that the peace process has not been effective, that it has not delivered anything in terms of peace or security, that it would be absurd to treat it as some type of "holy grail," and that new ideas are necessary. Netanyahu is likely to expand in his discussions with Mitchell the three-track approach to the peace process that he introduced during his inaugural speech in the Knesset on March 31: Palestinian economic development, building up the Palestinian Authority security apparatus, and diplomatic negotiations. Zalman Shoval, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu before he was sworn into office, said he expected that the Arab peace initiative would be discussed with Mitchell. "I think it will come up, because Obama is looking for new ideas," Shoval said. While Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the plan since becoming prime minister, Shoval said Netanyahu's position in the past had been similar to his own - that there were some positive elements in the plan, some negative ones, but that it should not be presented as an ultimatum. Jordan's King Abdullah, who is to meet Obama in Washington later this month, is expected to lobby the US president on behalf of the plan. The initiative calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, including on the Golan Heights and in east Jerusalem, in return for normal ties with the Arab world and a return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to Israel. Shoval said that prior to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Israel last month, she said Arabs should show Israel what elements of the plan they could put into action now. Shoval said his sense was that Washington also did not view the plan as a take-it-or-leave-it initiative. Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said in Amman late Saturday that Israel must declare its support for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state if peace talks were to resume. "If Israel wants to engage in political negotiations, it must accept a two-state solution, agreements signed, and halt settlement activity," Erekat said. Just as the international community boycotted Gaza's Hamas rulers because of their refusal to recognize Israel, pressure must be put on Israel to recognize the idea of Palestinian statehood, he said. "Failure to apply the same standards would mean pushing this region into the hands of extremists," Erekat said. PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki said President Mahmoud Abbas was expected to visit Washington at the end of the month to discuss the stalled peace talks with Obama. This would be the first meeting between the two leaders since Obama's inauguration. In Amman, senior officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Qatar said they remained committed to the Arab peace initiative, first proposed in 2002. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the collective Arab position was a "commitment to the Arab peace initiative, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the comprehensive and lasting solution that we all seek for the conflict in this region." Abdullah will convey that message to Obama when the two meet, Judeh said, which will reportedly be next week. AP contributed to this report.