RAMALLAH // Israeli media reports suggest that the United States and Israel are close to a deal on a settlement construction freeze to pave the way for a resumption of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.
However, the deal as reported would not be the complete freeze that both Washington and the Palestinians have been looking for. This could complicate the resumption of negotiations and would leave Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in an extremely awkward position. It would also be a blow to Barack Obama, the US president, as he seeks improved ties with Arab and Muslim countries.
According to a report in yesterday's Haaretz newspaper, the United States has dropped its insistence that Israel cease settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Moreover, the reported deal would also see Israel continue certain kinds of construction activity for public buildings such as schools in settlements elsewhere. Aside from this, Israel would agree to end its settlement construction in the West Bank for nine months. The durability of that freeze would then depend on confidence-building measures by Arab countries, including the resumption with some countries of low-level ties frozen after the second intifada started in 2000. During this time, Israelis and Palestinians would begin "meaningful" negotiations over an end to the conflict.
The proposal was presented to George Mitchell, the US envoy, in a meeting with Mr Netanyahu in London on Wednesday. Mr Mitchell did not immediately respond, and the two will meet in Washington next week, where the United States is expected to present its position. There is a sense that all parties want agreement before next month's UN General Assembly session in New York to allow Mr Obama, flanked by Mr Netanyahu, Mr Abbas and possibly some Arab leaders, to announce a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
As the reported deal stands, however, that might be difficult. Mr Abbas has until now insisted that there can be no resumption of negotiations until there is a complete settlement freeze. Indeed, it might have been easier for Mr Abbas to swallow some limited building in settlements in the West Bank than to agree to allow Israel a free hand to build in occupied East Jerusalem, with its Muslim and Christian holy sites and which Palestinians consider their future capital.
"Palestinians have been complaining consistently that the demography of East Jerusalem is being changed and thus the possibility of it being part of a Palestinian state. This is the main issue," said George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst. Mr Giacaman said the reported deal, which would likely be imposed on the Palestinian Authority, would be hugely unpopular with Palestinians and therefore very problematic for Mr Abbas.
The reported deal "would be extremely embarrassing for Mr Abbas. He has been strengthened inside Fatah, but among the Palestinian public he would be further weakened." Mr Giacaman said the only thing that could then go some way towards helping Mr Abbas would be if resumed negotiations were seen to be credible. Otherwise, "the future of the Palestinian Authority would be at risk". However, credible negotiations would seem unlikely with the current right-wing Israeli government, in large part made up of pro-settler political parties.
Although Mr Netanyahu eventually responded to US pressure with a tepid acceptance and highly idiosyncratic version of a two-state solution, he will probably not, in any negotiations, come anywhere near what Mr Abbas can accept, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. "If enough of a compromise can be reached and enough pressure be put on Abbas [to enter into negotiations] then the real show will begin," Mr Alpher said.
"Once these talks do start, the real problems will surface because the gaps between the two sides are simply too wide." That situation would seem to benefit neither the Palestinians nor the United States. Mr Abbas can ill afford another inconclusive peace process, while Mr Obama and his administration have invested a fair amount of political capital in ensuring at least a settlement freeze before negotiations resume.
Mr Alpher suggested that Washington could press the issue further, but it was "keeping its powder" for later. Mr Giacaman said the US administration was apparently fighting several battles at the same time with a staunchly pro-Israel Congress intent on preventing Mr Obama's healthcare reform, undermining at the same time its efforts at Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. But the result, a reluctant Palestinian Authority dragged into inconclusive negotiations, would suit only Israel's right wing.
It would, said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, show not a return to talks, but an acknowledgement that peace efforts "never departed square one". firstname.lastname@example.org