x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US envoy hopes to jump-start peace talks

George Mitchell will arrive in the region today to hold talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders to try to breathe new life into the long-stalled peace process.

RAMALLAH // George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, will arrive in the region today to hold talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders in a bid to breathe new life into the long-stalled peace process. The visit comes at a crucial time, particularly for the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has endured an unprecedented barrage of personal criticism after the PLO's decision to support a deferral of a vote in the UN's Human Rights Council on the Goldstone report.

To compound Mr Abbas's problems, last night Hamas asked Egypt to delay the signing of a Palestinian reconciliation deal that Cairo had announced for this month. Salah al Bardawil, a senior Gaza-based Hamas leader, said in a statement sent to the press yesterday that Hamas now will join the dialogue in Cairo only if Mr Abbas issues an apology over the vote's postponement. The PLO's support for a delay of the vote had been a "crime", Mr Bardawil said, and Mr Abbas "should immediately apologise to the Palestinian people".

Mr Abbas, who is widely seen as responsible for the decision to defer the vote, has also heard calls for his resignation from left-wing parties and human rights groups. Yesterday, even PLO officials added their voices to the criticism. Nabil Amr, the soon-to-leave Palestinian ambassador to Egypt and a prominent member of Fatah, Mr Abbas's party, said Mr Abbas had to take personal responsibility for the decision and castigated the Palestinian leader for staying abroad during the controversy. Mr Abbas is in Italy on a state visit and is not expected back until tomorrow.

The Palestinian Authority government under the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has consistently maintained that the decision was "a mistake", in the words of Ghassan Khatib, a government spokesman. Basem Khoury, the minister for national economy, even tendered his resignation over the affair, though he is understood to be reconsidering. Those around Mr Abbas were scrambling yesterday to limit the damage. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close Abbas aide and general secretary of the PLO's executive committee, acknowledged that the decision had been an error and said that there would be no repetition.

"A mistake was made, and we must not underestimate or conceal it," Mr Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio. He said the PLO would establish a committee, to begin work today, to investigate how the decision was reached and who was responsible. PLO officials were subsequently quick to endorse Libya's request for the UN Security Council, of which Libya is a rotating member, to hold a closed-door session on the Goldstone report. That meeting was scheduled to take place late yesterday.

The Libyan initiative "has won our full support and appreciation", said Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator. The Goldstone report was the outcome of an international commission, headed by a respected South African judge, Richard Goldstone, into Israel's offensive on Gaza this year. It concluded that both the Israeli military and Hamas militants had been guilty of war crimes during the three-week offensive and of possible crimes against humanity. Almost 1,400 Palestinians, the majority civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them were soldiers, were killed in the offensive.

Hamas, denying that its fighters were guilty of war crimes, has otherwise endorsed the report. Israel has vehemently rejected the commission's conclusions and has warned that any international endorsement of the report would harm prospects for relaunching the peace process. The report was due to be discussed by the UN Human Rights Council last Friday, and members were expected to vote on whether to endorse the recommendations and refer the matter to the Security Council. But that did not happen once the PLO's UN representative, apparently after persistent US pressure, came out in support of delaying the vote until March.

The United States has called the report "flawed" and unduly critical of Israel. But Washington may well have underestimated the backlash against the Palestinian leadership among Palestinians for supporting the delay. There have been demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and yesterday hundreds of posters critical of Mr Abbas were plastered around Gaza City. Washington will be concerned at the damage to Mr Abbas's credibility. It remains to be seen what quid pro quo, if any, Mr Mitchell can offer Mr Abbas on his visit. Washington has failed to commit Israel to a settlement construction freeze before launching negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Such a freeze would now seem more important than ever, not least because it would represent a signal that any impending negotiations process is credible and serious. "In view of the fiasco of the UN vote, the only thing that can salvage the Palestinian Authority is a credible political process [with Israel]," said George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst. "The question is what will Mitchell and the Americans be able to do."

The Palestinian leadership is in "dire straits", Mr Giacaman said. This factor might give the United States something to pressure Israel with, either vis-à-vis a settlement freeze or the framework of negotiations and whether they should start at the point from where previous negotiations ended, as the Palestinians want and the Israelis have so far rejected. "The Americans have an opportunity, after the Goldstone fiasco, to leverage the Israeli government. If they don't do that now, there is nothing to be optimistic about for the future of negotiations," said Mr Giacaman. * The National, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse