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.

By , Staff writer

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    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sits with US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell (l.) during their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 22.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"It's the best possible outlet given the enormous mistrust between the two sides. Since the early days of the process, I was for bilateral, direct negotiations, but I don't believe that would lead anywhere right now," Savir says. "The Palestinians would like to see the Americans playing a role, not as a kind of postman running from one room to another, but to play mediator. I think the Americans should go for proximity talks, but with the intention of trying to bridge between the two sides and their demands."

Even though the Israelis and Palestinians made their 1993 breakthrough with the help of resources far from Washington – from a Norwegian mediator to a couple of Israeli and Palestinian academics – the Clinton administration later came to play a key role. But much of that was based on the personal charisma and power of actors no longer on the scene. "It was based in the past on trust and on chemistry, and all of these elements don't exist today," Savir notes.

The Palestinian perspective

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, says that there are clear reasons why the two sides have not been able to agree to bilateral talks, and foremost among these is Israel's refusal to agree to a complete halt in settlement construction. Israeli Prime Minister decreed a 10-month freeze in all new settlement construction in November. But Palestinian officials say the freeze is unacceptable because it doesn’t include East Jerusalem. Israel annexed East Jerusalem – which was in Jordanian territory until 1967 - and considers it part of the sovereign Israeli capital, a stance not recognized by the international community.

"We understand this as exploratory talks, not bilateral negotiations. If they want to resume negotiations, they know they have to agree to a full settlement freeze," says Dr. Erekat. "Before we agree to proximity talks, we need more. We need a timeline, terms of reference and an outline of objectives from the US." He declined to elaborate on any of these terms.

Although it feels like watching proverbial grass grow, observers do expect some movement in the coming weeks. In particular, says Palestinian journalist Khalil Shaheen of the al-Ayyam newspaper, there appears to be an increased motivation on the part of Abbas to take action.

"Abbas needs to claim that he's doing something until he reaches the next Palestinian elections," says Shaheen. Though elections haven't been declared yet, this seems to be a goalpost for all Palestinian decision-making. But that goal-post can't be marked until there is a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal.

"The Israeli government, too, needs such a process, even if we don't believe it will lead anywhere, because this rightist government can't meet Palestinian needs," adds Shaheen. "I don't think Abbas is optimistic about these proximity talks, but he believes that any vacuum he leaves will allow violence to come in, and he prefers to keep the situation as it is. Even if there is no peace settlement, at least the Palestinians will not suffer more losses through another intifada. This is the assumption of President Abbas: the negotiations are something you engage in to gain fruits outside of the negotiating room."

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