Mitchell lands in Israel, rival Palestinian factions talk in Cairo

The US envoy arrives at a time when Israelis and Palestinians seem most absorbed with fixing their own houses before dealing with their neighbors.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
US envoy George Mitchell met with Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is poised to become the country's next prime minister.

JERUSALEM – Special Envoy George Mitchell touched down here Thursday for the second time since he was entrusted by President Obama last month with the daunting task of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to long-scuttled peace talks.

But the veteran negotiator arrives at a time when both peoples seem most absorbed with fixing their own houses before turning in earnest toward dealing with their neighbors.

Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah were meeting in Cairo Thursday, having relaunched a reconciliation dialogue that some hope will lead to a national unity government. In Israel, Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of trying to form a coalition government, and was still vacillating between two options, either of which could have a major impact on Israel's outlook in the peace process that Mr. Mitchell will oversee.

(Read more about Mr. Netanyahu's progress here.)

Netanyahu has the option of forming a hard-line alliance of right-wing parties who are ready to support him as the next prime minister, or of offering a more attractive and powerful role Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima party.

Mitchell meets with Mideast leaders

Mitchell met with both Ms. Livni and Netanyahu Thursday afternoon, following a stopover in Turkey in which he met with Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mitchell will also be meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, both of whom will be stepping down from their posts as soon as Netanyahu presents a government, or block that includes a majority of seats in the 120-seat parliament.

On Friday, Mitchell is to focus on Palestinians in the West Bank, and is scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad as well as PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mitchell is already well-versed in the problems of the region: his highly acclaimed report in 2001 on the breakdown of the peace process and the advent of the second intifada was widely received as balanced and informative. But many norms have changed since he was last deeply involved in the region's politics.

Less Israeli support for two-state solution

Livni looks likely to stick to her preference, voiced a week ago, to sit in the opposition rather than take part in a rightist government under Netanyahu's helm. In recent days, Netanyahu – who made Thatcherite-style reforms to Israel when he was finance minister from 2003-05 – says he wants to see less emphasis on a US-led land-for-peace formula, and more focus on improving the Palestinian economy.

Livni, however, seeks a two-state solution as the key to peace, and wants to continue her talks held with Palestinian leaders away from the limelight, following the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 (see the Monitor's story on the conference here).

"There is a big gap between Kadima and Likud on the issue of two states for two people. It's unsolvable," said Silvan Shalom, a senior Likud official, in an interview with Army Radio.

Israel's split in some way mirrors the Palestinians'. At root, Fatah embraces a two-state solution with Israel and Hamas does not, in the belief that Islam permits only a temporary truce with the Jewish state.

Stalemate: Palestinians also divided

Perhaps not surprisingly, the reconciliation talks in Cairo generated a heavy dose of pessimism in the Palestinian press.

During the deadly 22-day war between Hamas and Israel last month, in which 1,300 Gazans died, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights says at least 32 of those were extra-judicial killings of Fatah activists by Hamas gunmen. The group, based in Gaza, says that 15 other people killed during that period were kidnapped by Hamas gunmen and later found dead, while others were found injured and later died of their wounds.

"To date, the average Palestinian citizen does not feel any positive progress on the reconciliation because the behavior of both parties, Fatah and Hamas, remains unchanged. All Palestinians feel that political arrests and acts of revenge, incitement and mutual accusations continue, despite calls by the senior leadership to stop such acts immediately," wrote Talal Okal in the daily Al-Ayyam newspaper.

"Moreover, Palestinian and Arab observers fear that the dialogue will stop after two or three rounds and bring things back to square one. It also seems that the decision makers in the PA and Hamas do not feel that time is a pressuring factor for them to accelerate the dialogue with the aim of reaching final reconciliation," Mr. Okal wrote.

Mitchell looks for office space

In the hope of breaking these multiple stalemates, Mitchell has been reported in the local press to be looking for an office, probably in Jerusalem, in order to have a more regular presence from which to engage in peacemaking. But a US official in Tel Aviv says no such plans were underway as of yet.

One of the main focal points of Mitchell's visit will be assistance to the battered Gaza Strip, ahead of a major donor's conference in Cairo on reconstruction aid to the region. The conference will be attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to make her first trip here as secretary, accompanied by Mitchell, on Monday night.

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