x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Mitchell's tour ends without breakthrough

Pessimism surrounds prospects for renewed peace talks as the US ambassador to the Middle East ends his ninth tour of the region.

The US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, left, meets the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the second time during his visit.
The US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, left, meets the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the second time during his visit.

TEL AVIV // George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, held talks yesterday with senior Israeli officials on a renewal of peace negotiations as he wrapped up a regional tour that appeared to yield no breakthroughs. Mr Mitchell convened with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, for the second time in four days in a bid to end the deadlock that is hindering a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

A laconic statement from Mr Netanyahu's office said the focus of the discussions was "moving the peace process forward" and added that lower-level Israeli officials are to travel to Washington this week to carry on with the talks. The 76-year-old troubleshooter is on his ninth Middle East tour since his appointment in January, and his shuttle diplomacy in the current five-day visit had included discussions with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials.

Mr Mitchell, speaking earlier in Cairo, to where he flew late Saturday to meet Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, told reporters: "It has been and remains an important objective of American policy and of President [Barack] Obama and the secretary of state personally to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East." He added: "We understand that there are many difficulties, that there are many obstacles. But we are determined and committed to continue our efforts until that objective is reached." Amid the pessimism surrounding prospects for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, Marc Otte, Europe's envoy for Middle East peacemaking, said yesterday he believed the two sides can still be returned to the negotiating table. The Belgian diplomat told the Reuters news agency: "I see a lot of reason to be nervous, but see no reason to lose our nerve, because nothing is lost." Conceding the challenges involved, he said: "It is a bit more difficult than we thought, but Senator Mitchell is a very skilled negotiator." Mr Otte, asked about Mr Netanyahu's apparent refusal to discuss the Palestinians' demand for East Jerusalem to become their future capital, said there were some final-status issues "that are more difficult". But he also suggested that Mr Netanyahu's approach could be a negotiating tactic by adding: "I would not attach too much importance to the opening bids." Mr Mitchell is racing to deliver progress on his talks with Israel and the Palestinians before a status report on the negotiations that Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, is expected to hand to Mr Obama in the coming days. The US president - whose tripartite meeting in New York last month with Mr Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, seemed to yield little more than a reluctant handshake between the two leaders - has made Middle East peacemaking a key part of his foreign policy. But his efforts are being impeded by Israel's resistance to freeze Jewish construction on occupied land, a key Palestinian demand. In recent weeks, Mr Abbas has been under fire at home for not protesting against Washington's apparent softening of its call for a complete settlement halt. Yesterday, the central committee of Mr Abbas's secular Fatah faction said it is sticking to its "firm position" and called for "a total halt to settlement activity in all its forms", including in East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza-born senior Fatah official who is now based in the West Bank, was quoted on Israeli radio as comparing Palestinian suicide bombings to Israel's settlement building. He said: "What is the difference between blowing up a bus in Tel Aviv and taking over Palestinian land?" Mr Abbas has also faced much condemnation by Palestinians for giving in to US pressure and supporting a delay in taking action on a United Nations report alleging Israeli and Hamas war crimes in the country's attacks in December and January in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. Yesterday, Britain joined the calls for both Israel and Hamas to heed the report's recommendation on pursuing independent probes of the fighting. John Sawers, Britain's UN ambassador, told an Israeli radio station that he supports the "very serious" findings in the report, which he expects to be debated in the UN Security Council in a "very tense atmosphere". The 15-member body is due to raise the document during a monthly session on the Middle East that has been brought forward by six days to this Wednesday following a request by Libya, the only Arab state on the council. Even if action on the report is delayed, Israel is already paying a diplomatic price for its Gaza attacks. Yesterday, the country's military said that Turkey has barred it from an annual air exercise that was supposed to take place this week over Turkish territory in a move attributed by analysts to widespread Turkish criticism of the Gaza onslaught. That may further cool Israel's relations with Turkey, its best friend in the Muslim world and a key trade partner of goods including military equipment. foreign.desk@thenational.ae