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Fresh US push for Mideast peace: 'More like jazz than chess'

In the past week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have visited Egypt. Egyptian officials are scheduled to visit Washington this week.

By Correspondent / January 5, 2010

In this photo, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, right, meets with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Monday. Abbas is digging in his heels for a full freeze on Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank before restarting negotiations.

Omar Rashidi/Palestinian Authority/AP

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Tel Aviv

The US is launching a fresh diplomatic push to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, this time with the help of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a go-between.

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Top officials have held a flurry of high-level meetings in Egypt this week. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is digging in his heels for a full freeze on Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank before restarting negotiations. Israel is balking at agreeing to a deadline for a peace deal.

The continued deadlock in reviving talks that broke off a year ago is dogging the Obama administration as it nears the end of its first year. Yet, despite its desire to move the peace process forward, the US has insisted on hammering out clear parameters before allowing talks to begin again.

"The Americans created this trap of negotiating about negotiations," says Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "Just getting them to the table is perceived as a success."

Talks about the talk

In less than one week, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas have visited Egypt to discuss a compromise. After an Abbas-Mubarak meeting on Monday, Jordan's King Abdallah also flew in to discuss the talks. Egyptian officials are scheduled to visit Washington this week to update the US on the progress.

At stake are the parameters for a renewed dialog. Will they pick up from the point where former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left off with Abbas at the end of 2008? Will there be a time limit? Will there be any interim agreements?

On Monday, Abbas said he would decide whether to engage in fresh negotiations after the Egyptians and the Americans meet. Mr. Baskin says Abbas faces pressure from Egypt and the US to resume the talks but would need some sort of concession from Israel to drop his insistence on a freeze.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday that he opposed a two-year time limit for talks, arguing that it would raise expectations for a deal and end up triggering violence.

Israeli and Arab media have reported that one of the bridging proposals is to negotiate in the next nine months an agreement on a joint border that would track the pre-1967 Green Line but annex some blocs of Jewish settlements in return for Israeli territory. That could defuse the Palestinian insistence for a full settlement freeze.

Talks are 'more like jazz than chess'

There's also speculation that the US administration might give each side a series of guarantees about the talks' outcome that each leader could present as a diplomatic victory to their respective publics.

Kurt Hoyer, a US embassy press attaché in Israel, said the administration has been working very hard to get the sides back to the table. While the US has offered its suggestions toward that goal, it has not tried to force the sides to sit together, the diplomat said.

Reflecting on how such a task defies the best laid Arab-Israeli peace strategies and can require improvisation, Hoyer added: "Its more like jazz music than like chess."

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