US signals more optimism at reviving Mideast talks

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is sounding optimistic that it can restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that stalled only weeks after their US launch in September.

By (AFP)

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Published: Tue 16 Nov 2010, 12:24 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:14 AM

But analysts fear that the administration — even if it manages to revive the talks — lacks a strategy to guide the two sides to a settlement of the core issues by its stated goal of September next year.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making a “serious effort” by considering a new settlement freeze aimed at reviving the talks.

“This is a very promising development,” Clinton told reporters Monday, a day after the Israeli leader briefed his cabinet about a fresh moratorium on settlements in the West Bank.

Clinton declined to provide details but noted that US diplomats were “working intensively to create the conditions for the resumption of the negotiations.”

Under a US plan, sources in Jerusalem said, Israel would receive political and military benefits from the United States in exchange for a one-off, 90-day moratorium on new Jewish construction in the West Bank.

Details of the plan were put to Netanyahu’s inner circle and his cabinet over the weekend. He has promised to put the final draft to his 15-member security cabinet for approval, but no date has been set.

Even if Israel agrees to a freeze, a future resumption of talks remains uncertain as the Palestinians have insisted they will only accept a “comprehensive” ban on all Jewish settlement construction, including annexed east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to establishing a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel’s intentions.

“The first step in the process is to get them back to the bargaining table,” Clinton’s spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.

Once they return to negotiations, progress can be made that “reinforces to both of them that there’s value in staying at the table, staying engaged, working through the tough issues and reaching an agreement,” he added, declining to outline any such strategy.

Former US peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said the administration gave itself no alternative but to offer Israel strong incentives to freeze settlements.

“They are now fighting just to get back to square one, which is to maintain the process,” said Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “So I think they are in some respects victims of their own commitment to this process without a strategy to make it work.”

He faults President Barack Obama’s administration for focusing on settlements at the expense of the most divisive, core issues of Israel’s security, borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

“Unless you’ve found a way to get off the settlement enterprise and focus on the substance, this process is going nowhere,” Miller told AFP.

He warned that the two sides will struggle to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state without confronting the status of East Jerusalem, where Israel continues to build homes.

Miller also doubted both sides could reach an agreement within 90 days, although he could not rule out that they make enough progress to acquire a permanent stake in the negotiations.

“That’s about the best you’re able to do because... everybody and his brother who is opposed to this process now has a 90-day window in which to try to screw it up,” Miller said.

Amjad Atallah, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority who is now with the New America Foundation, said the administration has trapped itself into giving Israel more and more incentives for little or nothing in return.

He even feared that Israel may observe a freeze while pretending to negotiate borders and then emerge three months later with a “carte blanche” to build settlements throughout the West Bank, not just in East Jerusalem.

And if the Palestinians resume talks, “we can say with 99.9 percent probability that the Israelis and Palestinians will not agree at the end of those three months on what even a partial border will look like,” Atallah added.

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