RAMALLAH // George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, wrapped up two days of talks with Palestinian and Israeli officials yesterday by reiterating firm US support for a two-state solution. Mr Mitchell, who is on an extended tour of the region, also said the 2002 Arab peace initiative should form part of a comprehensive agreement. The initiative offers Israel full diplomatic ties with the Arab world in exchange for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and a "just" solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
"The US is committed to the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state where the aspirations of the Palestinian people to control their destiny are realised. We want the Arab peace initiative to be part of the effort to reach this goal," Mr Mitchell said after talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, in Ramallah. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has yet to commit his government to a two-state solution, and Mr Mitchell's visit has underlined emerging differences between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Mr Abbas asked Mr Mitchell to continue to press the Israeli government to commit to a solution that recognises an independent Palestinian state, according to a senior aide. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, also said the US had a "crucial" mediating role to play, but that until Israel committed to a two-state solution and fulfilled its commitments under a 2003 US-sponsored peace plan, there could be no negotiations.
"Until the Netanyahu government unequivocally affirms its support for the two-state solution, implements Israel's road map obligations and abides by previous agreements, Palestinians have no partner for peace." The road map calls on the Palestinian Authority to stamp out violence against Israel and on Israel to end its settlement building in occupied territory and dismantle the so-called settlement outposts, settlements established without the explicit permission of the Israeli government.
All settlements in occupied territory are illegal under international law. Violence flared yesterday in the normally quiet West Bank, with two Palestinians killed in separate incidents. One was shot by Israeli soldiers in a demonstration against the construction of Israel's separation barrier near Bil'in, a West Bank town. Another was killed by settlers near Hebron after he was reportedly discovered having infiltrated a settlement in the area with a knife.
The incidents underscore how volatile the situation remains in the West Bank, especially near Israeli settlements. As part of the Annapolis process with the previous Israeli government, Palestinian security forces were granted more powers in order to prevent such incidents. But Avigdor Lieberman, the new Israeli foreign minister, has said his country is no longer committed to any understandings reached under Annapolis.
Such statements have put Israel on a collision course with Washington as well as the Palestinians, and while Mr Mitchell's meetings with Israeli officials were cordial enough, analysts say the American envoy's visit have resolved little in that context. "Mitchell's visit was mostly a visit to Israel, with whom the US seems to have several differences," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst. "I think the US is serious about putting pressure on Israel, however mild, and it is having an effect on Israeli public opinion."
After meeting Mr Mitchell on Thursday, Mr Netanyahu said any negotiations for peace should be conditioned on Palestinians recognising Israel as a "Jewish state", something Mr Erekat dismissed as a tactic to divert attention from the "real issues" of ending settlement expansion. Palestinians reject such a position, since it undermines the position of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 per cent of Israel's population, and also endangers the possibility of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who were driven from their homes in 1948.
"It's a clever move on behalf of Netanyahu, because it is not controversial in Washington and it unifies Israeli Jews," said Mr Khatib. "Of course, Palestinians cannot accept this, because of the Palestinians in Israel, the refugees and, finally, because it's a racist position. But the suggestion shifts some of the pressure away from Israel." Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, said Mr Netanyahu's condition had helped shift the focus, but that the signs were those of the US being ready to apply some pressure. "There is pressure to recognise the two-state solution, pressure on settlements and outposts. I don't think the US will let Netanyahu off the hook." he said.
"The Obama administration appears more serious than it might have seemed a while back about the conflict. If the US applies real pressure, I think it will be very problematic for Netanyahu to hold on to this government." email@example.com