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WEST BANK: Mitchell fails to get Palestinian approval for direct talks with Israel

July 17, 2010 |  1:56 pm


Special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, on a new round of his proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, seems to have failed Saturday in getting a Palestinian agreement to resume direct negotiations with Israel, suspended since December 2008.

As a result, Mitchell said he will tour several countries in the region in an effort to get their support for President Obama’s vision of peace in the Middle East, but most importantly to get them to pressure the Palestinians to accept direct talks.

Mitchell, who described his three-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah as “candid and productive,” did not tell the press anything about direct negotiations with Israel but this subject was definitely at the core of his talks. Obama had urged Abbas in a telephone call last week to move from the current indirect or proximity talks to direct negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian Authority said it will start direct negotiations only after progress in the proximity talks on borders and security.

Chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, who normally speaks to the press after each Abbas-Mitchell meeting, this time refused to say anything. This left the stage open for others to give their opinion. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Saturday that what is important is not whether the talks are direct or indirect, but rather the substance of these talks.

“There has been a high focus on the structure of the negotiations rather than on the substance,” he said, explaining that there was nothing to encourage start of direct negotiations. Abbas’ Fatah Central Committee member and strongman Muhammad Dahlan said that Fatah has rejected a call by Mitchell to start direct negotiations. “Going to direct negotiations requires that there should be progress and clear Israeli answers to the borders and security issues,” he said. “In light of the absences of Israeli responses to these two issues, Fatah has not changed its position regarding refusing to go to direct negotiations.”

Sensing Palestinian opposition to direct negotiations with Israel before there is progress in the proximity talks, Mitchell will try to solicit support from pro-West Arab countries to pressure Abbas to accept direct talks. “I will now visit several countries in the region for discussion with leaders in several of the neighboring countries,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell knows that it was the Arab countries that made it easy for Abbas to start proximity talks when the Palestinians were strongly opposed to starting any kind of talks with Israel before getting an Israeli commitment to halt all settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Arabs will meet again at the end of this month, at the Palestinians' request, to decide on whether to reject U.S. pressure or skip the proximity talks and go straight to direct negotiations. The Palestinian Authority prefers that the Arabs give it the political cover necessary if it has to embark on an unpopular move such as direct negotiations before Israel meets its road map obligations.

Mitchell said his mediation aims at realizing “the vision that President Obama had set for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which must begin with an agreement between Israel and Palestine that will provide for two states living side by side in peace and security and hopefully prosperity.”

The Obama vision also includes peace between Israel and Syria and normalization of relations between Israel and “all the countries in the region,” said Mitchell. He said, “We recognize the difficulties and complexities involved in trying to realize this vision. But we are determined to continue in our efforts.”

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah

Photo: United States Middle East special envoy George Mitchell (left) engaged in conversation with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah 17 July 2010. Credit: POOL/EPA