U.S. leads new Israeli-Palestinian peace push

U.S. leads new Israeli-Palestinian peace push

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell hopes he can persuade international players to back Washington's latest endeavor to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Xinhua reported.

Mitchell was in Brussels on Tuesday to meet representatives of the Middle East Quartet, which comprises Russia, the UN and the European Union (EU) in addition to the United States. He was also slated to meet Israeli officials, according to the U.S. State Department.

    There are increasing signs from Washington that it favors moving towards proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians rather than shooting for direct negotiations.

    Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas is refusing to enter talks with Israel because of Israel's rejection of Palestinian demand that it implement a full freeze on settlement construction. In late November, Israel announced a 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank Jewish settlements.

   The idea of someone brokering indirect or proximity talks has been applied to several of the world's most intractable diplomatic disputes -- Cyprus, Northern Ireland and indeed Israel and Syria. In the latter case, two previous American leaders attempted to shuttle between top officials from Israel and Syria who sat in the same building but never held face-to-face talks; at least none that was ever made public.

    The idea of proximity talks is evidence that U.S. President Barack Obama, who just received the Nobel Peace Prize, wants to show he is still active in trying to cut a deal, according to former Israeli diplomat, academic and journalist Freddy Eytan.

    The very reason Obama brought in Mitchell in the first place was that the ex-senator is a man who can deliver. Mitchell found the solution to the 800-year-old Northern Ireland conflict, Eytan pointed out on Tuesday.

    "He chose a man who can achieve things but the Middle East conflict is more complex than Northern Ireland and therefore his mission is to spur on the Europeans," said Eytan, noting that on the whole, the Europeans and the Americans are talking the same language with regard to borders, Jerusalem and the other core issues.

   Mitchell's meetings with the Quartet and his talks with French leaders in Paris on Monday are a politeness on the part of the leader of the free world, said Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

    The process is very much led by Washington, but Gilboa fears the idea of introducing proximity talks is mistaken.

    Washington appears to be set on making Israel and the Palestinians talk and is using whatever mechanisms it can to make that happen, "even though the conditions might not be right," he said.

    Gilboa, who believes the U.S. proposal to reach a final-status agreement between the parties within two years is "groundless," contends the parties should first reach an interim arrangement rather than being forced into something the world will later regret.

    "There need to be small interim steps that will build confidence. We've already seen that big steps don't lead us anywhere," he said, adding that the maximal concessions Israel is currently ready to give fall short of the minimal concessions the Palestinians are prepared to accept.

    While Eytan expects the Quartet will largely go with the American flow regarding Israel and the Palestinians, he sees one area of potential disagreement.

    Eytan, who is now with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, believes the roles of Hamas and Egypt concerning the Gaza Strip may cause differences.

    The recent crackdown by Egypt on smuggling tunnels under its border with Gaza has been warmly welcomed in Washington but it has pitted Cairo against Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls the coastal enclave. Hamas is fighting a major battle with Abbas' Fatah movement for control of the PNA.

    While German and France back the American antipathy towards Hamas, some others in the EU and Russia believe in engaging Hamas, which Washington deems a terror organization.

    Currently, argues Eytan, the U.S. would like to see the Quartet strongly backing Cairo, which has ignored considerable criticism in the Arab world in taking the fight to Hamas.

    The Americans also do not want to see any reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in the short term, said Eytan, adding that the Americans would rather do business with Fatah and Abbas.

    All of this is also being looked at within a much broader context both by the U.S. and its partners in the Quartet.

    Perhaps above all else is the Iranian nuclear issue. At the end of this week the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany will discus a possible new round of sanctions against Tehran.

    At the same time, as Eytan sees it, a close eye is being kept on the new alliance between Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

    After his talks with the Quartet and the French, Mitchell is expected to travel to the Middle East in the coming days to discuss with leaders here the latest U.S. proposals. That will be the culmination of a month in which the diplomatic wheels have begun to turn with considerable speed.

    Washington played host to the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan and there have been numerous meetings between Mideast leaders regarding rebooting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    All speak of the need for immediate progress, but Gilboa warns that may come at the price of failure.

    "Only move ahead when the time is ripe. If the basic demands of both sides aren't anywhere close to one another there's no point," he said.

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