x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Envoy says US role vital to peace in Middle East

Some Palestinians question whether the US can intercede with Israel, but George Mitchell insists America is a buffer against violence.

TEL AVIV // If Washington was to abandon its mediation role in peace talks between Palestinians and Israel, as an influential US newspaper columnist has suggested, it could result in an eruption of violence, the top US envoy to the region has warned.

But George Mitchell, who has served as the White House's emissary to the Middle East since January 2009, and has been involved in the so-far failed bid of the US to reignite direct negotiations, also expressed disappointment with the deadlock in the peace process.

In an interview late on Thursday, Mr Mitchell responded to a call this month by Thomas Friedman, of the The New York Times, for the US to cease its mediation role because of the lack of progress.

"While I share the frustration that he expresses … I do think that we have to stay involved there because our interest is at stake," Mr Mitchell said in an interview with a television station in Maine, the state he had represented as a US senator in the 1980s and 1990s. "An eruption of violence or some other negative act could occur at any time with unforeseeable consequence."

Mr Mitchell's comments emerged as the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, is drawing condemnation from the Palestinians and other officials in the Arab world about its failure to advance negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some Palestinian officials have in recent weeks questioned whether Washington remained effective in its long-time role as the chief international arbiter of the peace process. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians were resumed on September 2 in a White House ceremony following a 20-month hiatus. They were suspended three weeks later when Israel rejected calls by the Palestinians and the Obama administration to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Since then, US efforts to convince Israel to implement another temporary freeze came to naught. The Arab League's follow-up committee on the Middle East peace process this month refused to endorse the Palestinian participation in further peace talks without a "serious offer" from the US on how to make them succeed.

Mr Mitchell insisted that the Obama administration would not quit mediating despite the challenges.

"If there were a breakdown, God forbid an eruption of violence, there is no way the US would stand aside and let [the Israelis and Palestinians] take the consequences," he said.

"The demands by the parties, by other countries in the region, indeed by the entire world, for US actions to try to deal with the consequences of that would be high… and any president would not simply stand by."

Nevertheless, the Palestinian insistence on having a settlement freeze that includes both the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Israel's refusal to accommodate that demand have dimmed prospects for peace talks. The deadlock has prompted the Palestinians to launch a campaign for unilateral international recognition of their future state without first reaching an agreement with Israel.

It's also hoping that the United Nations Security Council would vote on a resolution condemning Israel's settlement expansion as soon as February.

However, the latter bid requires the support of the US, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Washington has indicated it would resist the measure.