US pushes Israelis and Palestinians to 'proximity' peace talks
With the prospect for direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians bleak, US peace negotiator George Mitchell is pushing for "proximity" talks that would see him or an aide shuttling between the two sides.
There is a new American proposal on the table, and it's called proximity talks. While this isn't new for diplomacy, it is new for the Middle East conflict, where Israeli and Palestinian officials have long considered face-to-face dialogue to be a key ingredient in the recipe for making peace.Skip to next paragraph
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The idea of proximity talks, which has been used in conflict resolution work from Cyprus to Northern Ireland, is that when the waring parties are so far apart, it sometimes works best to have them nearby but not in the same room, and to have an intermediary shuttling between them until he or she forges an agreement.
That is the role that veteran US peace negotiator George Mitchell is now poised to take on, in an offer which the sides have been mulling over since his last visit here – the 13th since he was assigned the difficult job of brokering Middle East peace on behalf of the Obama administration. The Israeli government has accepted the formula, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) says it still seeking clarifications on various details from the US before it gives its reply.
"The Palestinian side has not set any conditions in particular," PA President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Japan on Tuesday. Speaking at a seminar, he said his government was open to the US proposal but was waiting to hear more details from Washington, Reuters reported.
Many pundits here have been quick to wonder if this isn't a step backward. Israeli and Palestinian leaders met secretly in a villa outside of the Norwegian capital in order to reach the breakthrough Oslo Accords in 1993, or more specifically, a Declaration of Principles. Israel in particular has frowned on remote talks and on the over-involvement of outside parties, saying that the conflict must essentially be solved in bilateral talks. Palestinians, on the other hand, have wanted more intense US or European involvement for some time. And with the parties seemingly not moving anywhere fast on their own, it has become apparent to most that without an outside push – and a consistent one - progress is unlikely.
Why proximity talks now?
Uri Savir, the former director-general of Israel's foreign ministry and one of the early architects of the Oslo peace process, says that the US offer for proximity talks may be the best, most realistic option on the table given current circumstances.
"I am cautiously optimistic that something can be accomplished in proximity talks," says Ambassador Savir, now of the Peres Center for Peace and author of The Process: 1100 Days that Changed the Middle East.