x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mitchell departs from Israel empty-handed

After weeks of shuttle diplomacy aimed at ending the growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian occupied territory, the US Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell left Israel on Friday having failed to secure an agreement with the Israeli government. A trilateral meeting between the US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will still go ahead on Tuesday.

After weeks of shuttle diplomacy aimed at ending the growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian occupied territory, the US Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell left Israel on Friday having failed to secure an agreement with the Israeli government. A trilateral meeting between the US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will still go ahead on Tuesday, but as Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center scholar and former US Middle East peace negotiator told Foreign Policy, this is probably little more than a gesture of politeness to Mr Obama. "Despite a fourth meeting in four days between the top US envoy to the Middle East and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, no deal was clinched between the US and Israel on a halt to settlement construction in occupied territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state," The National reported. The Los Angeles Times noted: "In a speech last week to members of his right-wing Likud party, which has close ties to settler groups, Netanyahu said Israel would not yield. " 'We are willing to make concessions for peace, but we won't be suckers,' he declared. "Abbas told Mitchell on Friday that he remained opposed to peace talks without a full halt to construction. " 'There are no middle-ground solutions for settlements,' Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after the meeting in Ramallah in the West Bank. 'A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze.' " Earlier this summer, in a commentary for Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed said: "The battle to stop the [Israeli] construction of settlements is a personal battle for Obama, and one that will reveal whether the US president is capable of dealing with the larger issues, such as [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations over territory, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and disarmament. This will also clarify whether Obama will be able to force the parties to follow through on whatever agreement they make. Everybody is monitoring the battle with regards to the Israeli settlements, and construction is ongoing. So long as settlement building continues under the pretext of expansion and vertical construction, nobody in the region will believe that Obama is capable of handling these weighty issues. The Israelis, and the Arabs, need to see a president who is serious [about the peace process]; a president who means what he says and says what he means. Obama must now show us that he is serious." As Agence France-Presse reported on June 24, the US initially adopted a tough posture in its approach to Israel. "Washington called off a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US Middle East envoy because of Israel's refusal to halt settlement growth, an Israeli newspaper said on Wednesday. "The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot, quoting an unnamed Israeli official, said that Washington issued a 'stern' message to Netanyahu to halt all settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land, including so-called 'natural growth' within existing settlements. " 'Once you've finished the homework we gave you on stopping construction in the settlements, let us know. Until then, there's no point in having (US Middle East envoy George) Mitchell fly to Paris to meet you,' the official said. "The meeting with Mitchell was to take place in Paris during Netanyahu's first visit to Europe since taking office earlier this year at the head of a hawkish right-wing government." In spite of the fact that US efforts to restart negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians have yielded such little progress, the Obama administration is unwilling to admit failure. New York Times reported: "senior administration officials say they do not view their inability to announce a new round of talks next week as a setback. They say that Mr Obama expected this to be a lengthy, grueling process, and that Mr Mitchell has already moved Mr Netanyahu a long way toward accepting some form of freeze and Arab countries toward considering conciliatory measures toward Israel. " 'Given the situation we confronted in January 2009, the amount of progress Senator Mitchell has made in nine months is remarkable,' said a White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor. "In a speech Friday at the Brookings Institution, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, 'I can guarantee you that President Obama and I are very patient and very determined.' "Still, it was telling that in listing the Obama administration's priorities for the General Assembly, Mrs Clinton did not even mention the Middle East, focusing instead on nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other issues. She mentioned the need for a 'comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians' at the end of a wide-ranging address." At the centre of the impasse between Mr Mitchell and Mr Netanyahu lies East Jerusalem, Kevin Peraino wrote in Newsweek. "That's because Israel views the area as an integral part of the country where it can build at will, while the United States - and most other countries - sees it as occupied territory like the rest of the West Bank, and thus the subject of negotiations on a future Palestinian state. "In the middle of the controversy stands Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's mayor since November 2008. Barkat's responsibilities include approving new construction permits anywhere in Jerusalem. That puts him in a unique position to make Mitchell's life less difficult - or much more so. It's the latter course that's looking more and more likely. The mayor - a 49-year-old secular entrepreneur who made a fortune developing antivirus software - is not a populist zealot. He spent part of his childhood on college campuses in Pasadena, California, and Ithaca, New York, where his father was a physics professor, and he insists that he's well-tuned to Washington's worries. Yet as a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party, his stance on settlement building in the ancient Israeli capital is uncompromising. "Jerusalem is totally out of these negotiations," the mayor said in an interview last week... "[Mr Barkat] admits that he's worried that the city's Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish one. 'I have to balance Jerusalem and keep it Jewish, as the Jewish capital of the world,' he says. With the Obama administration pushing for a comprehensive peace and Mitchell scrambling to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table this fall, that's not the kind of language that the Middle East envoy - or anyone in the White House - wants to hear."

pwoodward@thenational.ae