Mitchell, Netanyahu report 'good progress' in Mideast talks

All sides have promised to meet again. Israeli settlements and a belligerent Iran remain the biggest stumbling blocks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) shakes hands with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in London, Wednesday.
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President Obama's Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell plans to meet next week in Washington with a delegation of Israeli officials as part of a process that both the US and Israel say is moving closer to the goal of restarting direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

After four hours of talks in London Wednesday, former Senator Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a joint statement that the delegation would meet with Mitchell to continue the conversation. Although the two sides said they had "made good progress" in their talks, they offered no elaboration of what that progress was.

But Mitchell, who has made five trips to the region and other visits to European and other capitals since his appointment in January, has made clear that securing a freeze on Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories will be key to restarting the stalled peace talks.

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As part of a triangular effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, Mitchell has also pressed Arab states to commit to measures normalizing relations with Israel and to more vigorous financial support of Palestinians.

The painstaking US-Israel talks revolve around defining just what a settlement "freeze" would be. The US needs enough of a freeze to woo back Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who says he will only return to talks once a complete freeze is agreed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu – who points out that no new permits for settlement construction have been granted under his tenure – must contend not just with the 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank, but with a broader constituency wary of giving up too much and more focused on Iranian hostility.

Resolving the settlement stickler in the peace talks equation will likely hinge on two factors: disposition of already issued settlement permits, and the duration of any agreed freeze, says Arthur Hughes, a Middle East Institute scholar and former US diplomat in the region.

"Those are the two elements they are playing with to try to get some agreement," he says.

It may seem counterintuitive, Mr. Hughes says, but he believes the lack of any concrete details from Mitchell and Netanyahu on the "progress" they made could mean that "they're getting close to a deal."

A deal would mean that Obama could announce a resumption of negotiations during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York the week of Sept. 21, something some US officials have said privately that the president would like to be able to do.

The gathering of world leaders would allow Obama to make the announcement not just with the support of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders but with an impressive group of Arab leaders tied into the plan.

One issue that some regional experts say could still sink a quick resumption of peace talks is Iran and the threat its nuclear program poses to Israel.

The best way to address Iran's belligerence is to reach a two-state settlement, some Mideast experts contend, and thus to leave it out of the peace diplomacy. But others say Iran will have to be addressed to coax any concessions from Israel towards peace.

"Tougher and meaningful sanctions on Iran, especially on the gas and oil industries, could make it easier for Israel to focus on peace talks, so the linkage makes sense," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

Adding that effective sanctions might also "keep Israel from going off the rails" and launching military strikes on Iran, Mr. Sokolski says that nothing would more surely doom renewed peace talks than Israeli bombs falling on Iranians.

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