Israel and Palestinians step closer to proximity peace talks

US Mideast envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Wednesday and is to meet Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinians are skeptical of the indirect or 'proximity' peace talks, as they skirt key issues like borders and Jerusalem.

A handout picture from the Israeli government press office shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting US Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday in Jerusalem. Israel said indirect talks with the Palestinians were doomed to fail, hours before Mitchell was to meet Netanyahu on the stalled Middle East peace process.

Israelis and Palestinians aren't talking to each other, but they are moving a step closer to the long-awaited proximity talks that finally began Wednesday as US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Mitchell is to meet Friday with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who is currently in Egypt.

Although this experiment in shuttle diplomacy has been months in the making, there were indications on Wednesday that Palestinians were not convinced they had received a satisfactory answer to the "guarantees" they had requested from Washington in the form of a promise that the Obama administration would somehow compel Israel to move forward. And, given the talks' limited scope, skepticism was riding particularly high.

"The American administration has not provided any guarantees for the Palestinian leadership," says Hatem Abdel-Qader, who heads the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio of the Fatah movement, the party headed by Mr. Abbas.

"The assurances that the Palestinian leadership talked about are oral statements that can be reneged on by the Israeli side any time it wishes to do so," he says. "These assurances do not include any frank position that Israel should be adhering to. It leaves Israel to act as always in a noncommittal fashion. Obama's letter to the Palestinians should have been more assertive and practical in its nature."

Palestinians: no discussion of most crucial issues

Mr. Abdel-Qader, who describes the current outlook for indirect talks as "a waste of time," says Palestinians worry that Israel stands to benefit from this formula because it avoids discussing the most crucial issues of borders, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees – instead focusing on issues like security and economics.

Moreover, it lacks a time frame or a deadline, which many Palestinians wanted because they fear agreeing to talks that will carry on indefinitely with little results, while settlements expand. "The Israelis want this to be an umbrella in order to continue their settlement project both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem," he says.

Palestinian analysts say that although negotiations have finally gotten under way, outstanding, fundamental differences could bring the parties to an impasse fairly soon.

"The differences between the Palestinians and the Israelis will float to the surface immediately. They will differ over the security arrangements, and the Israeli side will refuse to delve into the main final status issues which the Palestinians are keen to get into," says Abdel-Majid Sweilem, a Palestinian political analyst in Ramallah.

"Hence, these negotiations might be paralyzed before they even start, and the credibility of the PA – which accepted to go into these negotiations again – will surely suffer," he adds. "Our hope is that the US will pressure Israel to move ahead into final status negotiations. I think it should be in the interest of the US to progress in this track in order to demonstrate to the whole world the seriousness of its approach to solving the Arab Israeli conflict."

Poll of Palestinian public

According to a new poll released by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Beit Sahour, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 60.8 percent of Palestinians are to varying degrees in favor of resuming indirect negotiations with Israel.

The mood on the street, however, makes it difficult to find Palestinians who are enthusiastic about the prospects of the talks being productive.

"All these negotiations are a way of surrendering the cause by Abbas and his group to the Americans and the Israelis," says Ilham Mahmoud, a lawyer in Ramallah. " It does not make sense to get involved in this collaborator's job. I would rather see Abbas concentrate on reconciliation talks with Hamas so that we can have a strong internal front."

Naeema Eesa, a teacher on her way home from school, said that even if she tried, she couldn't give an honest, optimistic message to her students.

"No one here believes in this fruitless exercise of indirect talks," she says. "Palestine will only return to us through a hard position on the part of the Palestinians."

- Nuha Musleh in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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