Another round of shuttle diplomacy from US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell fails to convince the Israelis to freeze settlement building. In Ramallah, Khaled Amayreh wonders how many doors are left for Mitchell to knock on
American Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell has once again failed to convince Israeli leaders to freeze Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The freeze is viewed as an essential precondition for the resumption of the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Mitchell held several meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who was adamant in refusing to commit his right-wing coalition government to halting settlement construction, especially in occupied East Jerusalem.
"It is now clear that there will be no freeze. We clarified to the US that we would continue building around 2,500 units whose construction had already begun. Two days ago, we authorised 450 additional units. I stated that we would consider reducing the extent of our building," the Israeli premier told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.
Netanyahu has also been reiterating earlier conditions for recognising a prospective Palestinian state, including acceptance by Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state.
Many Palestinians and Arabs view Israel's insistence on this point as a precursor to its deportation of Palestinian citizens to any future Palestinian state.
In their West Jerusalem meeting on 15 September the Israeli prime minister did offer Mitchell a partial freeze of settlement expansion in the West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem, and made it clear to the American envoy that any such freeze would be temporary in nature and exclude thousands of new settler units planned by the previous government.
"The reduction in building will be for a limited time and there is not yet an agreement with the US on the period of time."
Netanyahu demanded this partial freeze be reciprocated by "genuine normalisation steps" from the Arab world, especially countries such as Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.
Mitchell was planning to visit a number of Arab capitals in order to urge his hosts to make more gestures towards Israel.
Palestinian and Arab observers mostly agree efforts in this regard will have little or no impact on the policies of the extremist leadership in Israel which refuses to end the 42-year occupation of Arab land as a matter of principle, not for lack of normalisation with the Arab world.
Mitchell is perhaps still hoping to get Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to hold a tripartite meeting with President Obama at the UN. Palestinian leaders, with whom Mitchell met later in Ramallah, reasserted their refusal to attend such a meeting as long as Israel refused to a full freeze of Jewish settlement activities in the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Following the meeting with Mitchell Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told reporters that the Palestinian position remained unchanged and that Israel must freeze all settlement construction before any further moves can be considered.
Erekat downplayed the idea of holding a tripartite American-Israeli-Palestinian summit in New York next month, saying that the important thing was not to hold meeting but to make progress.
"There has to be an agreement on substantive issues first, and then we can easily agree on procedural matters such as holding a meeting. What worries us is that Israel is trying to appear interested in peacemaking as part of a public relations campaign that seeks to throw the ball into the Palestinian court."
American failure to pressure Israel is increasingly frustrating the Palestinian leadership which dreads a repetition of the futile peacemaking efforts that characterised the Bush administration. One Palestinian official was quoted this week as saying that the Mitchell approach was "unconvincing and raises a lot of question marks".
"Mitchell is always proposing talks and more talks and still more talks as if this will make any difference. What we need is a clear plan to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and create a viable Palestinian state."
The Palestinian official also suggested that Abbas was much stronger than before and in a position to withstand possible American pressure.
PA resistance to the idea of holding an Abbas- Netanyahu meeting, even if brokered by Obama, is understandable.
Palestinian politician and former cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib argues any resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians without first agreeing the outlines of a prospective final peace agreement would not only be premature but dangerous.
"There is great danger in entering into talks just to get a process going. Another dead-end process will serve only to remind Palestinians of the Annapolis conference and the public no longer has the stomach for talks for the sake of talks. Such a process can only backfire and damage any renewed credibility for the Palestinian leadership."
Khatib argued that both Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad had worked hard to improve their public standing and were in no mood to sacrifice this achievement.
"Should the Palestinian leadership be pressured into a peace process that is not preceded by a complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction in all occupied territories, this will undermine the leadership in the eyes of the Palestinian public and provide more ammunition to those opposed to peaceful negotiations as the means to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," said Khatib in a clear allusion to Hamas.
The current Israeli leadership has been saying that it won't agree to enter into talks unless the results are defined and known in advance. Most Palestinians interpret this stance as a pretext to prolong peace talks for as long as possible in order to build more Jewish settlements and irreversibly kill any prospects for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
This week, Hamas warned the PA against "continuing to deceive itself and the Palestinian people with this 'game of make believe', otherwise known as the peace process". Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Mitchell's visits to the region were "futile" and a "waste of time".
"He is demonstrating to the whole world that the US lacks the will to pressure Israel into ending the occupation."
Hamas official Ahmed Youssef believes that whatever credibility Obama acquired following his landmark speech in Cairo in June is quickly evaporating as his administration looks set to reproduce the failures of its predecessor. Youssef also lashed out at the Ramallah leadership, saying that it would eventually cave in to American and Arab pressures and agree to enter into a new round of fruitless talks with Israel.
"They are not in a position to say no. We are talking about an entity whose very survival depends on Western aid and Israeli acceptance."