x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Peace process is back on US agenda

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, as the two countries squabble once again over Israeli settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem.

WASHINGTON // A flurry of top-level meetings in recent days has seen the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process rise back to the top of the agenda in Washington.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, yesterday met Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in New York, with the two countries squabbling once again over Israeli settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem.

The topic also dominated a meeting Mrs Clinton held on Wednesday in Washington with Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, who was in town to discuss ways to restart negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel.

The PLO is refusing to return to negotiations as long as Israel continues its settlement construction, a position for which the Arab League has given its support. Mr Aboul Gheit on Wednesday signalled, however, that Cairo feels "a certain satisfaction" with US efforts to bring the parties back to talks.

Last month, the Arab League gave Israel a one-month deadline to comply with the demand. The deadline passed this week with the Israeli interior ministry announcing plans for the construction of 1,300 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem.

The US protested against the move. During his visit to Indonesia, Barack Obama, the US president, said the announcement was "not helpful" to get talks back on track. In Washington on Wednesday, Mrs Clinton also criticised the announcement, calling it "counterproductive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties".

"We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem," she said.

But Mr Netanyahu had already rebuffed Mr Obama on Tuesday with a short statement saying: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel." His meeting with Mrs Clinton is unlikely to result in any change of heart.

With the US administration showing little sign of going beyond verbal rebukes of Israel's settlement building, the onus in Washington will, once again, be on how to convince the Palestinians to return to negotiations without a settlement construction freeze, even a partial one.

Part of this effort would seem to be financial. On Wednesday, the US State Department announced that it had delivered US$150 million (Dh752m) to the Palestinian Authority, its 2011 direct assistance.

Although that support comes as part of the fiscal year, which in the US starts in October, it represented a doubling of the support the Palestinian Authority received at the start of the last fiscal year. A shortfall in its budget had seen the government of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, struggle to pay wages and service debts. Mrs Clinton's announcement on Wednesday emphasised that the funding was part of the administration's "two-track" approach to solving the conflict, negotiations and "the hard work of building institutions".

Yet, it was hard not to place the announcement in a broader political context, considering it was made in the middle of a new settlement row, awaiting the signal from Arab League over its position vis-à-vis negotiations with Mr Netanyahu in the country and following the mid-term election setback for the Democrats. "I think it's important for the administration to show that it remains committed to the Palestinian Authority in the middle of all this and even with a weakened president," said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This is a way the administration is trying to counteract some of the negative events in the last days and signal to Palestinians and Israelis that it is firmly committed to the peace process and declarations, going back to the 1990s, on Palestinian statehood."

That commitment, said Mr Cook, would not translate into direct pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion.

"It's very problematic. The fact of the matter is that [settlement building in Jerusalem] undermines the spirit of what the US is trying to do… [But] Netanyahu understand that the president has been greatly weakened and I think he feels he has room to run here."