x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Israel and Palestinians still willing to talk: US

The US said yesterday that Palestinians and Israelis were still committed to the peace process, even though the US has abandoned its efforts to persuade Israel.

WASHINGTON // The US said yesterday that Palestinians and Israelis were still committed to the peace process, even though the US has abandoned its efforts to persuade Israel to extend a partial settlement freeze.

However, analysts said the decision was a setback to US mediation efforts and necessitates a change of approach by the administration.

The decision did not come as a surprise. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had been unable to persuade his coalition government to accept an American offer of incentives to renew the freeze for three months. The offer included a promise not to ask for any further freezes after that period as well as US$3 billion (Dh11bn) worth of jet fighters.

Israel's refusal to renew the moratorium in the West Bank had already meant that the direct negotiations that the US launched in September were long frozen. And analysts say Tuesday's decision amounts to an admission that the administration's efforts are now in disarray.

"It lays bare the absence of not only a strategic view of how to deal with this issue, but it appears the administration is also at a loss tactically about how to proceed," said Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

"The fact of the matter is that [the administration's] efforts over the past two years have amounted to less than zero, because we are arguably worse off today then we were when they walked through the door."

US officials say the administration will continue to try to secure a comprehensive deal next year. A State Department official said yesterday that the US was satisfied that both parties were still committed to the peace process.

"Our discussions with the parties have reaffirmed our conviction that both sides are committed to a two-state solution that resolves all the core issues. Both sides have indicated that they want the US to continue its efforts."

The official also said that the US position on settlements had not changed. "We don't accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we have, and will continue, to express that position."

But the administration appears to have abandoned efforts at pursuing direct talks, at least for now, and is reverting to indirect or proximity talks to move forward.

"What we are seeing is a shift in approach," said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The real question now is whether [proximity talks] will be the new approach or whether this is a holding pattern until a new strategy is devised."

Mr Danin, the former head of the office of Tony Blair, the Quartet representative to the Middle East peace process, said there was no reason that proximity talks could not lead to positive outcomes. He cautioned, however, against unrealistic expectations and said the administration's aim to secure a comprehensive deal by next September was now "all the more ambitious".

"We've lost three key months since September. Confidence has not been built in this intervening period and no momentum has been generated."

A return to indirect talks, furthermore, would seem to require the administration to conduct a comprehensive review of its approach -- potentially the only positive outcome of Tuesday's decision, said Mr Aronson.

But the situation is unlikely to become any easier for US peacemaking.

This is the second time Washington has had to back down in the face of Israeli intransigence over the issue, and Mr Danin suggested this would hurt both Israel and the US.

"Obviously it harms the working relations between the US and Israel, and I think American credibility in the region has been harmed by the inability of the US to bring Israel on board."

And if faith in US mediation should wane further, Palestinians may be tempted to unilaterally declare statehood. Such a move, however, would likely encounter US and Israeli opposition, and it is not clear what advantage, if any, it would accrue to Palestinians.

"Going ahead with a unilateral declaration of statehood that does not include Israeli or American support is not going to achieve Palestinian national aspirations," said Mr Danin. "You may gain some international backing and perhaps a certain degree of pressure of Israel to do something, but at the end of the day you are still going to need Israel on board."

okarmi@thenational.ae