x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Shadows loom over Middle East peace talks

As US envoy arrives, Israeli minister declares deal 'impossible' and Jordanian king warns region is on brink of darkness.

TEL AVIV // George Mitchell is taking another jab at Middle East peacemaking. Yesterday, though, prospects that the current visit of the top US envoy to the Middle East would prompt a resumption of the stalled peace process appeared grim after Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister declared there was no chance for a peace deal anytime soon.

Mr Mitchell's latest tour in the region also coincided with a warning issued by King Abdullah of Jordan that the current diplomatic impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is sending the region back "into the darkness". The US emissary, despite his daunting task, appeared determined to convince Israeli and Palestinian leaders to return to the negotiationing table. Speaking before a meeting with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, in Jerusalem, Mr Mitchell said: "We are going to continue with our efforts to achieve an early relaunch of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians because we believe that is an essential step toward achieving the comprehensive peace to which I referred earlier."

Barack Obama, the US president, has made it a priority to renew peace talks that were called off when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in December. Washington is aiming to spur a process that would include talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon and Israel and Syria, as well as the "full acceptance" of Israel and the normalisation of ties with the country by Arab states, Mr Mitchell said.

Mr Obama's efforts have so far yielded few tangible results. The tripartite summit he hosted two weeks ago in New York with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, concluded with no breakthroughs. Israeli media this week reported that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is due to hand Mr Obama a progress report on the negotiations in mid-October. The reports quoted an aide to Mr Mitchell as saying that the envoy's current tour is not expected to conclude with an announcement on the talks.

Hopes for a resumed process were dampened by comments made by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and the second-most powerful figure in Mr Netanyahu's governing coalition. Mr Lieberman, speaking to Israeli radio just hours before his meeting with Mr Mitchell, said a peace agreement "seemed impossible to reach". He added: "Whoever says that it's possible to reach in the coming years a comprehensive agreement that means the end of the conflict simply does not understand the reality. He is spreading illusions and in the end brings only disappointment and drags us into a comprehensive confrontation."

Mr Lieberman, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, also said the two sides should reach a "long-term intermediate agreement" that would focus on security, economy and stability while leaving the "tough issues for a much later stage". He referred to issues including borders, the future status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The comments by Mr Lieberman, who has angered the Obama administration with similar statements he has made since the right-leaning Israeli government took power in March, are likely to clash with the approach of Washington and its allies in the Middle East.

King Abdullah, who heads one of only two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel - the other is Egypt - said in a front-page interview yesterday with Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, of the deadlock in talks: "We are sliding back into the darkness." The Jordanian leader, who plays a key role in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, cautioned that only the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would end the long-simmering conflict and help Israel emerge from its regional isolation.

"Is Israel going to be 'fortress Israel' or is it going to be part of the neighbourhood? Because if there is no two-state solution, what future do we all have together?" he said. King Abdullah's comments were dismissed by Mr Lieberman, who said in the radio interview that, unlike for Israel, the "Palestinian question is of utmost importance" for the Jordanian leader. Mr Lieberman added: "I would have liked a more objective approach from him on the dangers threatening the region. We have to say in a clear manner to the region's leaders that they have to start speaking truthfully and that ceding to extremist elements in the Arab world can only create problems."

A spokesman for Mr Abbas yesterday was quoted by news reports as demanding that Mr Mitchell clarify his response to Mr Lieberman's comments and saying that the Israeli government "destroys" US peacemaking efforts. Mr Mitchell, who is due to return to Washington on Sunday, will shuttle today between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Mr Netanyahu and with Mr Abbas. vbekker@thenational.ae