Mitchell visit to Israel: Does Obama's path to Iran pass through Jewish settlements?

Peace envoy's trip is part of sweeping effort to demonstrate a broader US approach toward regional peace.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell (l.) and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speak to the press after their meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday. Mr. Mitchell is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders hoping to give new life to hopes for a two-state solution.

US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, in the region for the first time since the new Israel government led by Benjamin Netanyahu took office, is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with an eye toward injecting new life into old hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Mr. Mitchell, a veteran peace negotiator, has been on the road in the Middle East since Monday. He has met with officials in Morocco and Algeria as part of a sweeping trip to demonstrate the broader perspective the Obama administration intends to take toward regional peace. After meetings here Thursday and in Ramallah on Friday, Mitchell is slated to go to Egypt – a major power broker in the region – as well as to the Gulf countries.

Part of the policy reboot of the Obama team involves the possibility of making a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's concerns on Iran's nuclear program, one of the leading Israeli newspapers reported.

Mitchell's mandate is to shepherd a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which reached a new nadir in January in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But that is widely expected to be at odds with the outlook of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party and prime minister from 1996-99, said in his recent inaugural address that he was seeking an economic peace with the Palestinians. Noticeably absent was any reference to the two-state solution, a concept that has been embraced by previous Israelis governments and by the international community.

Netanyahu's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made an even more controversial speech when he came into office just over two weeks ago, saying that Israel was no longer bound by the Annapolis Process. That relaunching of Middle East peace talks in November 2007 was sponsored by the Bush administration and attended by many Arab countries under the aegis of the Saudi-offered peace initiative for comprehensive peace.

But officials in Netanyahu's administration say that the world should not jump to conclusions about what his government is or isn't willing to do in the interests of peace.

"We are currently undergoing a policy review, and, to be fair, the US is only now coming out of their policy review. They're in office for months, and we're in office for days," said an official in Netanyahu's office. "The prime minister talked about his desire to engage the Palestinian Authority, and he said he wanted to work in parallel on three tracks: economic, security, diplomatic."

Peace envoy quietly tests water

Mitchell has not planned any media stops or public statements during the Israeli-Palestinian visit, in part because he was still trying to get a hold on where the new Israeli government stands.

"This is the first time that he'll have a chance to meet with this sitting government, and he's going to begin to answer for himself what this government will look like," says Stewart Tuttle, a spokesman for the US Embassy. He noted that the trips to other countries in the region, especially those where senior US officials rarely go, were demonstrative of the new administration's desire to take in a bigger picture of the Middle East.

"He's touching base with lots of interested parties in the region," Mr. Tuttle adds. "This is the administration's effort to have a broad view of what's happening in the region, not exclusively a focus on what's happening right here."

A new focus on the settlements

Another sign of shifting strategy is the possibility that the Obama administration would make a palpable link between Israel's approach to reaching peace with the Palestinians and Israel's concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

On Thursday, Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel's mass-circulation papers, quoted an official in the Obama administration as saying there would be a tradeoff: Bushehr for Yitzhar. The catchphrase is meant to imply that if Washington's outlook on Iran is to be more or less in sync with Israel's, Netanyahu must be willing to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. (Bushehr is an Iranian nuclear facility, while Yitzhar is known to be among the most hard-line Jewish settlements.)

The paper's Shimon Shiffer wrote that Netanyahu and his top ministers, Mr. Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, "agreed to show a united front that the route to reaching a solution would be the road map, and would clarify that Israeli flexibility on the Palestinian issue would be contingent upon the American approach toward resolving the Iranian threat, as well as its attitude towards Hamas and Hezbollah.

"Senior US administration officials are fully aware of the linkage that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have created between Israeli willingness to make advances on the Palestinian track and their expectations of the Americans to address the Iranian threat, and senior American officials have begun to talk about 'Bushehr for Yitzhar,' " Shiffer explained.

"Namely, if you want us to help you defuse the Iranian threat, including the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, get ready to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, with Yitzhar considered to be a token of an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory."

Mark Heller, an analyst at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that making such a link doesn't "quite compute," because the issues are substantially different.

"I think that whatever Obama is or isn't going to do on Iran won't be affected by what Israel does or doesn't do on the Palestinian track," Dr. Heller says.

"It reflects a little bit of Israeli paranoia, in that there's an expectation that Obama's people will come forward and say it will make it easier to be tough on Iran if you are accommodating on the Palestinian track. It may make some sense, in that there are people in the States who think these things are kind of linked, but that's mostly people who think that solving the Palestinian issue is the key is everything. I'm not so sure."

Nothing easy about Mitchell's task

Many of the same complications that held up progress in peace talk under former premier Ehud Olmert – who was openly in favor of a two-state solution – are expected to continue to present roadblocks to Mitchell's course. Hamas and Fatah are still in a cold war: Reconciliation talks in Egypt broke off about two weeks ago and no new date has been set for their resumption. Hamas and Israel never managed to reach an actual cease-fire agreement, a matter that was underscored when a Qassam rocket from Gaza landed in Israel around the same time that Mitchell did.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have said that if Netanyahu does not make his support for a two-state solution apparent, they just may decide not to do business with him at all.

"If Netanyahu continues to talk about the economic solution," wrote Omar El-Ghul in al-Hayat al-Jadidah, a paper that reflects the official viewpoint of the Palestinian Authority, "and undermines the option of the two-state solution by changing the facts on the ground through settlement expansion and changing the demographic reality, then the Palestinian leadership will not agree to talk to this Israeli government."

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