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WEST BANK: Is Mitchell getting any closer to bringing Palestinians to negotiating table?

August 11, 2010 |  8:18 am

After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for three hours in  Ramallah on Tuesday, U.S. special peace envoy George Mitchell seems to be getting closer to convincing the Palestinians to start direct negotiations with Israel. But he still has some more convincing to do before he succeeds.

Mitchell froze his efforts toward indirect, or proximity talks, started in March, after President Obama, heeding domestic and Israeli pressure, called on Abbas to  go straight to direct negotiations regardless of the outcome of the unfinished indirect talks.

Obama made that position clear in what Palestinians described as a carrot-and-stick letter Obama recently sent to Abbas. In that letter, Obama told Abbas that he must go to direct negotiations with Israel or else Obama would not be able to help him any more. Palestinians interpreted that as Obama's threatening to stop all financial and political assistance.

Abbas had so far stood his ground in refusing to start direct negotiations before Israel halts all settlement activities, mainly in East Jerusalem, and agrees to the principle that the talks will within a certain timeline lead to the creation of a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the territories Israel had occupied in June 1967 -- that is the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

The general Palestinian stand, so far, is opposed to starting direct negotiations. Palestinians were even opposed to the U.S.-led indirect talks, arguing that because years of direct negotiations starting with the Oslo process in 1993 were not able to bring results, why should more of the same bring the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict any closer to a solution? The balance of power, they say, is not in their favor, and until the situation on the ground tilts that balance more in their direction, they don't believe Israel is going to yield on any of the issues.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians accepted the indirect talks, but only for a limited time and on a trial basis.  When the indirect talks failed to bring results, however, Palestinians felt that if the U.S. was not able to persuade Israel to agree to a  total freeze on settlement activities in the Palestinian territories -- which Palestinians consider a fundamental element in the creation of a viable and sustainable Palestinian state --  then how could the U.S. get  Israel to agree to more critical and sensitive topics, such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders and water?

Mitchell did not give up. He returned to the region this week to see if the Palestinians were able to get their act together and accept direct negotiations. Since the Palestinians are the weaker party in the conflict, with minimal political power, pressuring them, vis-a-vis pressuring Israel, is seen as a piece of cake.

According to Abbas, the Palestinians proposed three ideas to the U.S. to speed up the process for the start of direct negotiations with Israel.

They suggested a trilateral meeting of Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. officials to discuss technical details of the negotiations. Israel rejected the proposal and the U.S. in turn rejected it as well.

The Palestinians also proposed that Obama make a statement to the parties announcing the guarantees the Palestinians were looking for that would give them hope that negotiations this time would lead somewhere. Obama refused.

Then the Palestinians said they would agree to start negotiations based on a "Quartet" statement the foreign ministers of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the secretary general of the U.N. issued on March 19 in Moscow and which called on Israel to halt all settlement activities and reach a solution within 24 months. The U.S. rejected that suggestion because the statement was hard on Israel since it came following international outrage at Israel’s settlement policy after Israel announced the construction of 1,600 housing units in an East Jerusalem settlement during the visit of Vice President Biden to Israel.

However, the U.S. seemed willing to ask the Quartet to issue a new statement more acceptable to Israel that could set the ground for the start of negotiations. But the Palestinians might not like the new statement if it doesn't include a clear call for Israel to halt settlements and to accept the June 5, 1967, line as the borders of the Palestinian state with an agreed-upon swap of territory equal in size and value.

Mitchell, resolute as  always, said after meeting Abbas on Tuesday that he will continue his efforts in spite of past difficulties and expected future problems.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah

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