x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US pushes on as peace talks hit new block

Israelis and Palestinians yesterday poured more cold water on Washington's bid to revive peace talks, two days after a top diplomat said the US administration would keep pushing the two sides to reach a pact.

TEL AVIV // Israelis and Palestinians yesterday poured more cold water on Washington's bid to revive peace talks, two days after the top US diplomat said the US administration will keep pushing the two sides to reach a pact.

The latest impasse emerged as George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, is expected in the region this week for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. His visit comes days after the White House said it had failed to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction for three months to help revive negotiations. Palestinians refuse to return to talks without a freeze. Yesterday, Nasser Judeh, Jordan's foreign minister, called on the US to devise a new formula for reigniting negotiations even without a settlement moratorium.

On Friday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, urged Israelis and Palestinians to redouble their efforts to deal with final-status issues at the centre of their dispute.

Gilad Arden, a government minister and senior official in the ruling right-wing Likud party of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated yesterday that Israel will refuse to discuss final-status issues with the Palestinians under any sort of time pressure.

"It is neither logical nor in Israel's interest to negotiate with a stopwatch in hand," Mr Arden told an Israeli radio station.

Mr Arden, reflecting the right's opposition to territorial concessions, said that large-scale Israeli pullouts from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem would allow Islamists allied with Israel's archenemy Iran to take over those areas.

The Palestinians have increasingly appeared disappointed with the inability of US President Barack Obama's administration to spur an effective peace process.

Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator and an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, expressed anger that Mrs Clinton stressed in her speech that both sides share responsibility for the failure of the talks.

"The American side proved to be much weaker than expected as they even fell short of pointing to Israel as the real reason for their failure," Ahram Online, the website of Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, quoted Mr Shaath as saying yesterday. He added it was Israel that was violating international law by continuously building in West Bank settlements. Mr Shaath expressed dim hopes that Mr Mitchell's visit may help solve the impasse. "No clear outline for a future peace plan can be seen on the horizon," he said.

Nevertheless, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, said yesterday on the US channel ABC's This Week programme that American "bridging proposals may be necessary" to help narrow the rift between the two sides. Even with such proposals, the two sides are unlikely to budge from their stances on core issues like Jerusalem.

Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu indicated that he stood by his refusal to give up East Jerusalem, which he considers part of the Israeli capital, but which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

The rejection, expressed by an official in the prime minister's office who spoke on condition of anonymity, came in response to statements made on Friday by Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labour party, the only centrist member of the governing coalition. Mr Barak, who spoke in the same forum as Mrs Clinton, said that the holy city will have to be shared as part of a future peace deal. The official from Mr Netanyahu's office said: "Those remarks were not co-ordinated with the prime minister."

Such differences are widening a rift between Mr Netanyahu and the Labour party, in which top officials have threatened to resign should the peace process not be resumed.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the commerce and industry minister and a top Labour official, yesterday warned that there was no reason for his party to remain in the government if "peace talks were frozen".

Some Israeli commentators said that Mrs Clinton's speech indicated that the US was not planning to give up on the Middle East peace process, but also reflected Washington's growing frustration with Mr Netanyahu's approach.

"The Americans have committed all the possible mistakes concerning the contacts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but they haven't lost their fighting spirit," wrote Ben Caspit, a political analyst for the Maariv newspaper.

According to Mr Caspit, Washington is concerned that Mr Netanyahu would succumb to pressures from his right-wing coalition partners and avoid the peace process until 2012, when Mr Obama would probably be too deep in his re-election campaign. He added that Mrs Clinton's disappointment with Mr Netanyahu was reflected in her speech, when she "lauded the Palestinians countless times" while sparing Mr Netanyahu public praise.

In another snub, Mrs Clinton met earlier on Friday in the state department with Tzipi Livni, the head of the centrist opposition Kadima party and a rival of Mr Netanyahu.