US envoy seeks fresh talks between Tel Aviv and Damascus as pressure grows on Israel to extend freeze on illegal settlements.
Middle East peace is within our reach, says Clinton
DAMASCUS // The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrapped up a trip to the Middle East yesterday saying peace between Israelis and Palestinians was achievable and needed to be reinforced with support from Arab states. Mrs Clinton held meetings yesterday with King Abdullah of Jordan in Amman and with the Palestinian Authority presiden,t Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah before flying back to the US. Her Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, travelled to Syria and Lebanon to brief leaders on the two days of peace talks that Mrs Clinton supervised between Mr Abbas and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "Peace is once again within our reach," Mrs Clinton said before leaving Jordan. She and Mr Mitchell have been trying to resolve a dispute over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank that could derail the talks. Mr Mitchell reported progress on the issue. A 10-month moratorium on settlement construction expires at the end of this month. Mr Abbas, who dined with Mrs Clinton at Mr Netanyahu's home yesterday, has threatened to abandon the talks if construction resumes. Nonetheless, Mr Abbas said yesterday he sees no alternative to continuing the talks. Israel is under increasing pressure to extend the ban. The US has been encouraging Israel to continue the moratorium. Egypt has also urged Mr Netanyahu to keep the ban for three more months. The European Union joined the others yesterday in urging an extension. In a declaration adopted by foreign ministers, the EU "recalls that settlements are illegal under international law and calls for an extension of the moratorium decided by Israel." Meanwhile, Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday called on the Palestinians to resolve their divisions to strengthen their hand in the talks.
Mr Mitchell predicted in Damascus yesterday that a comprehensive Middle East peace "will travel the full distance from hope to reality". Negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which began a fortnight ago, continued this week but they have not been accompanied by renewed discussions between Israel and Damascus.
"We have every expectation that comprehensive peace will travel the full distance from hope to reality," Mr Mitchell said. "We are well aware of the challenges and difficulties. Still, as difficult as the task may be, the alternative for all concerned is far worse." The last mediated dialogue between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2009, while the most recent direct negotiations broke down a decade ago.
Washington has said it is seeking a comprehensive Middle East peace, one that involves not just the Palestinians but also Israel's Arab neighbours. A deal with Syria is critical if there is to be a lasting settlement. Mr Mitchell held talks with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and the country's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, yesterday. The US team arrived in Syria having been in Jerusalem on Wednesday for the second round of face-to-face talks between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
Mrs Clinton, speaking to reporters, she said that talks were making progress. "They are serious about this effort. They are committed and they have begun to grapple with the hard but necessary questions," she said in reference to Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. "I am convinced that this is the time and these are the leaders who can achieve the result that we all seek, two states for two people living in peace and security."
Mrs Clinton also stressed the need for widening the peace talks to include Syria and Lebanon. "We believe that it is not only important to pursue the Palestinian- Israeli negotiations but a comprehensive regional peace consistent with the heart of the Arab Israeli peace initiative." Mr Mitchell's visit to Damascus comes three days after Claude Cousseran, a French presidential envoy, was in the Syrian capital also working to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Mr Assad told the French representative that Syria remained committed to peace but that it was "hard to imagine" a deal being struck. Israel has occupied part of Syria's Golan Heights since seizing them 1967. It subsequently annexed the territory and, to date, has refused to return the entire area. Lebanon similarly remains technically at war with Israel over occupied land. Recent efforts to revive talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv have failed to get past the first hurdle. Syria has insisted Israel must commit to withdrawing from the entire Golan Heights before discussions can resume. Israel has said talks can begin only without pre-conditions.
Israel has also called for Syria to end its alliance with Iran and Hizbollah and Hamas.
* Suha Maayeh reported from Amman