x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Middle East peace process - still stuck in a rut

A month ago, during a White House meeting between the US President Barack Obama and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Mr Obama referred to "the rut that we're in currently" while discussing the Middle East process. A month later neither the US president nor his Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, have had much success pulling anyone out of the rut.

A month ago, during a White House meeting between the US President Barack Obama and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Mr Obama referred to "the rut that we're in currently" while discussing the Middle East process. A month later neither the US president nor his Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, have had much success pulling anyone out of the rut. During a trilateral meeting in New York on Tuesday, Mr Obama acknowledged the long road to Middle East peace after he personally entered the diplomatic process and brought the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for the first time, The National reported. "As expected, there was no breakthrough, but Mr Obama reiterated his commitment to resuming peace talks and announced that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would meet George Mitchell, US Middle East envoy, next week. "He also said Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, would give him a progress report in mid-October, revealing a rough timetable for the US administration for the first time, analysts said." Time magazine said: "The problem in getting the process moving again, of course, is that Netanyahu and Abbas don't share a common destination. The Israeli prime minister has surged in Israeli opinion polls by pushing back against Obama's settlement-freeze demands, and he is under no domestic pressure to make any concessions. But Abbas' domestic constituency will see the New York City meeting as yet another humiliation inflicted on him by Washington, which has had him pose for endless photographs with an array of Israeli leaders who have no intention of satisfying the basic demands of a peace agreement he could accept. In a bid to reclaim some of the ground he has consequently lost to the more radical Hamas organisation, Abbas had refused to meet with the Israelis until they established their bona fides through a settlement freeze. By meeting with Netanyahu absent that halt to construction on occupied territory, the Palestinian Authority president risks further undermining his already diminished authority. "Each side, predictably, is blaming the other for the impasse. Netanyahu last week warned that Abbas will have to 'decide if he is Arafat or Sadat'. Sadat is hailed in Israel and the US as a peacemaker, while Arafat has been portrayed as an obstacle to peace. But things look very different to the Palestinians: Abbas has a portrait of Arafat hanging in his office, and seeks to draw authority by claiming to represent his legacy; it's highly unlikely that any Palestinian politician would claim Sadat as an object of emulation. "The stalemate goes far beyond the atmospherics of Tuesday's New York City meeting. The Palestinians have lost all faith in the Israeli government's willingness to make the concessions needed for a credible two-state solution and see US pressure as the only way to achieve that outcome. That's the message in Abbas' refusal to talk in the absence of a settlement freeze. But after demanding such a freeze and then being rebuffed by Netanyahu, Obama finds himself trying to imagine a peace process between two leaders whose visions of peace are incompatible with those of their counterparts." Reporting on the meeting, Politico said: "Obama called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to 'break the deadlock' and show the flexibility needed to relaunch peace talks. " 'It is past time to talk about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward,' Obama said at the beginning of the meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. 'It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals.' " 'Permanent status negotiations must begin - and begin soon,' Obama said. 'And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed. ... We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back. Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency.' " Following Mr Obama's meeting, his envoy, George Mitchell, gave a press briefing. "Reiterating much of Obama's earlier statement, Mitchell shared notes of what he said Obama said to the two leaders in the meeting," Politico reported. " 'It's difficult to disentangle ourselves from history but we must do so,' Mitchell cited Obama. 'The only reason to hold public office is to get things done. We all must take risks for peace.' "Asked about US efforts to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze which seem to have stalled for weeks, Mitchell said, 'Our objective from the beginning is the relaunch of negotiations. The actions we asked parties to take are not ends in themselves; they are means to the end, an end we continue to seek' - the relaunch of permanent status peace talks. " 'Neither the secretary [of state, Hillary Clinton], the president or I, ever said, of any one issue, that [settlements] or any other, that it is a precondition to negotiations,' Mitchell added. 'What we have said, we want to get into negotiations, we believe the requests we made would if accepted and acted upon, create most favorable conditions available to try to achieve success in those negotiations. But we do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them.' "Mitchell said the negotiations have made significant progress on reducing the areas of disagreement, and the settlement issue was just one such issue. " 'Our position remains unchanged, we are doing the best we can to achieve the relaunch of negotiations.' " In The Guardian, Ian Black said: "The meagre results of the meeting make a gloomy comparison with the excitement generated by Obama's election and then his long-heralded speech in Cairo last June. Its messages to the Muslim world included his insistence that Israeli settlement must stop and that occupation for the Palestinians was 'intolerable' - strong words on both counts. "Netanyahu has refused to give enough ground on a settlement freeze to allow Mitchell to play a genuine bridging role. Talk about 'natural growth' may play well with the Likud leader's supporters and partners at home. On the diplomatic front it spells impasse. "Abbas has learned the lesson of negotiations that go nowhere slowly. Even if the economy of the West Bank is improving and some Israeli roadblocks have been removed, an 'economic peace' that does not end the occupation will not do. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, still in place despite the winter war, is opposed to talks. "The question for Obama is how long he can go without having something tangible to show for his engagement. Arab states have balked at making gestures of normalisation towards Israel as long as there is no movement on the settlement front - an issue of enormous symbolic significance that is seen as a test of Israel's good intentions."

pwoodward@thenational.ae