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A fresh round of mediation by US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell between the Israelis and Palestinians began this week. Mr. Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday in Jerusalem, after having met with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in Ramallah.
The Palestinians and Israelis are unwilling to talk directly with each other. Instead, Mitchell's role is to shuttle between the two sides as a mediator in what are being called "proximity talks." The Palestinian Liberation Organization's agreement to the mediation has been seen as a small victory for US President Barack Obama, as he tries to restart peace talks have been on hold for 17-months, since the right-wing Netanyahu government came to power.
In Ramallah, Mitchell's discussions focused on the borders of a future Palestinian state, Voice of America reports. Mitchell plans to shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem for as long as four months, VOA adds. In Ramallah, he was reportedly given letters of protest over the killing of an elderly farmer in Gaza by the Israeli military and of a Palestinian teenager in the West Bank, allegedly by an Israeli settler, Agence France-Press reports.
Details of Mitchell's discussions have not been formally released, as he typically keeps a low profile on visits, but Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Netanyahu will offer a package of goodwill gestures to encourage direct talks. According to Haaretz:
Israel also pledged to undertake a series of confidence-building measures toward the PA. A diplomatic source in Jerusalem said the gestures will most likely include the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the removal of additional checkpoints in the West Bank, a de-escalation of Israeli military activity in Palestinian towns, and the transfer of security control over areas of the West Bank to the PA.
The Palestinians had agreed to Mitchell's mediation role two months ago, but refused to move forward in March when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new settlers homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim that area as the capital of a future state.
To bring Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table, the US reportedly told them in private that Israel would face consequences for provocative new settlement expansion, The Christian Science Monitor reported. "The Palestinians were pressured into talks," Mohammed Dajan, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, told the Monitor earlier this month. "If this process succeeds, the Obama administration will have to pressure both sides – also the Arab states – because there is a price to be paid by everyone."
Since Mitchell began shuttling between the two sides on May 9, each has accused the other of damaging the prospects for progress. In Ramallah, Abbas told Mitchell that Israeli provocations were threatening to dismantle the talks, the Jerusalem Post reports. "We hope that the Americans will obligate the Israelis to stop the provocations, which include invasions, arrests, settlement construction, and the creation of new facts on the ground,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said after the meeting, according to the Post.
Israel is convinced that the Palestinians are trying to prevent progress, too. Haaretz today cites a "classified document" written by Israel's foreign ministry, which says the PLO is stoking diplomatic pressure on Israel to extend the settlement expansion freeze beyond a September deadline. "The Palestinians are embarking on talks with no faith in their outcome, virtually with the expectation that they will fail," the report says, according to Haaretz.
But PLO head Abbas is against a wall here. He was only able to gain approval for "proximity talks" from the PLO's executive committee and the Fatah central committee after he ensured he would argue for a permanent Israeli settlement freeze, according to an essay on the Israeli-Palestinian web forum Bitterlemons.org by co-editor Ghassan Khatib. Mr. Khatib writes:
"The make-or-break issue is, as it has always been, Israel's settlement behavior. The international community, led by the US, has to do whatever it takes to ensure that Israel does freeze the expansion of settlements. If it fails, the Palestinian leadership will find it hard to continue with indirect negotiations. And if the leadership continues against the will of the majority, this will further weaken its public position. This, in turn, will only play into the hands of the Islamic opposition led by Hamas."