US Mideast envoy George Mitchell wrapped up three days of talks here on Tuesday, heralding "good progress" in his meetings with Israeli officials. But he made no mention of a much anticipated agreement on the most visible point of contention in recent weeks and a key issue for Arabs: freezing settlement construction in the West Bank.
One of the main goals of Mr. Mitchell's visit, part of a regional trip that includes stops in Arab Gulf states later this week, had been to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to stop the expansion of settlements – a move President Obama sees as a jumping-off point to getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree on a two-state solution. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he will not return to talks with Israel unless such a freeze is instituted.
Figures released by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) this week indicate that settlements grew at a rate of 2.3 percent for the first half of this year, pushing the total number of Israelis living in West Bank settlements above 300,000 for the first time.
The Israeli media have been abuzz with reports that the IDF is preparing to implement a government order to evacuate 23 illegal settlement outposts to fulfill a long-standing promise to Washington.
But in the midst of Mitchell's three-day visit, right-wing activists set up 11 new outposts in defiance of Netanyahu's engagement with the Obama administration on the settlement issue.
Netanyahu: 'We are opening the roads to peace'
Netanyahu and Mitchell had their final meeting at the Allenby Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, where Netanyahu touted having extended the hours per day that the passage is open as a sign of his easing restrictions on Palestinians. In recent weeks, Israel has removed dozens of army road blocks and has eased up on checkpoints around the West Bank in a goodwill gesture meant to help create an atmosphere for peace talks.
"We're continuing our efforts to make life easier for the Palestinians," Netanyahu said, "and this is part of the policy to work in parallel – top-down politically, bottom-up economically."
He agreed to open Allenby until midnight for the next two months, after which the demand will be reevaluated with an eye towards having the key passage point open 24 hours a day. Palestinians say the limited hours and long lines constrain economic growth and freedom of movement. "We are opening roadblocks, we are opening ties, we are opening the roads to peace," Netanyahu said.
Obama paved Mitchell's way with letters to Arab leaders
Mitchell is now scheduled to continue his Middle East peacemaking mission in the Arab Gulf states, in sync with expectations that Obama administration officials are working to broker some kind of kick-off for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In exchange for Israel showing it is serious about stopping settlement growth and reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians, moderate Arab states that support the peace process would undertake steps toward "normalization" with Israel.
"President Obama's vision is of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which includes peace between Israel and the Palestinians, between Syria and Israel, and between Israel and Lebanon, and also the full normalization between Israel and its neighbors in the region," Mitchell said in a press conference with Netanyahu on Tuesday. "That is our objective and it is that to which we have committed ourselves fully."
Mitchell's emphasis on normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors comes amid US urging Arab states to do more to support the Arab Peace Initiative introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002. In short, it offers Israel peace and normalization of relations with a panoply of Arab states if it reaches a statehood deal with the Palestinians.
Keen to see progress, Obama has sent letters to several Arab leaders asking them to commit to steps toward Israel as well to live up to their economic pledges of support for the Palestinian Authority, according to several media outlets, including the BBC and Yediot Aharonoth, an Israeli newspaper.