RAMALLAH // Palestinians and Israelis are set to begin indirect negotiations later this week in what is supposed to be a prelude to direct talks between the two sides. Yesterday, the Arab League said it backed a resumption of indirect peace talks, despite what it called a lack of Israeli conviction, a statement said. Palestinians had indicated that should the league be supportive, they would accept to commence talks even though they had previously refused because of continued Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem.
Arab countries had earlier given their blessing to indirect talks when asked in early March, but the process was interrupted when Israel a few days later announced a tender for 1,600 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem. Civilian settlement in occupied territory is illegal under international law, and both the Palestinians and the US have asked Israel to freeze such construction as a sign that the country is serious about renewed negotiations.
Israel, which unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem after occupying that part of the city in the 1967 war, is unwilling to share the city with a future Palestinian state, and has been unyielding in its refusal to end settlement construction there. All major Israeli political parties consider Jerusalem the country's "eternal, undivided capital", even if no country has recognised the annexation of its eastern half.
Nevertheless, somewhat chastened by the mini-crisis in US-Israel relations that the Ramat Shlomo announcement caused, the right-wing coalition government under Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is understood to have accepted a tacit settlement construction freeze in East Jerusalem, along the lines of the partial settlement construction slowdown in the rest of the occupied West Bank. It is likely to include a prohibition on any provocative announcements about building in the city.
The US, where a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks has become a priority for the Obama administration, has worked hard behind the scenes to ensure that the so-called proximity talks can begin, with George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, concluding his latest visit to the region last week. On Friday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she was confident that the sides would begin negotiations this week, with Mr Mitchell and his team acting as mediators. The US is understood to have provided the Palestinian side with a letter of assurances to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, to return to negotiations. No solid information about the details of that letter has emerged. Palestinians have been cagey about releasing any information, and reports that the letter included a US guarantee to support UN condemnation of any Israeli actions that could be seen as provocative was rejected on Friday by a White House spokesman.
Other reports have suggested that American assurances include a pledge that Washington would take a public position against any stalling in talks or convene an international conference on the conflict after November's midterm elections. Whatever the assurances, George Giacaman, a Ramallah-based analyst, said Palestinians ought to be wary. "There have been various assurances over the past several months that have not been honoured," Mr Giacaman said.
"The problem for the Palestinian side is that it is difficult to refuse completely to go to negotiations even absent a full Israeli settlement freeze, because they will be blamed." And even if proximity talks begin, all parties concede that direct negotiations are needed. These will only be entered into if the Palestinian side is assuaged that Israel is serious about negotiations. That can only happen should Israel, at a minimum, extend its partial construction freeze in the West Bank as well as any unofficial freeze in Jerusalem.
Such an extension will be fought tooth and nail by settlers, even though the current slowdown is full of holes, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli to settlement watchdog. And should settlement construction in East Jerusalem noticeably slow down it will provide a rallying cry not only for settlers but Israel's right wing in general, the very people who voted for Mr Netanyahu's coalition. Should settlement construction in East Jerusalem continue, however, it will become difficult for Mr Abbas to continue negotiations, as Palestinians will object to the reality of one of five final status issues being changed even as talks are underway.
The outlook for talks therefore is poor, and both sides look like they are talking to please Washington, rather than out of any belief that a fruitful process can be achieved. "I don't think the process will last too long," said Mr Giacaman. @Email:email@example.com