Mitchell Cites '02 Arab Plan For Peace

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 18, 2009

JERUSALEM, April 17 -- White House envoy George J. Mitchell ended two days of talks here with little visible progress between Israelis and Palestinians, but with apparent assent from both sides to pursue peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

In brief remarks after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the former senator from Maine said the United States wants to build on a 2002 Arab initiative seeking "a comprehensive peace" between Israel and all Arab nations, including a Palestinian state. The Obama administration already has made overtures to Syria -- along with Lebanon the most antagonistic of Israel's neighbors -- and Mitchell has been touring other Arab states. Jordan's King Abdullah II is due in the United States next week.

One topic in this week's talks was Iranian influence in the region. Some Arab states share U.S. concerns about Iran -- as does the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- and the Israelis told Mitchell that the sense of common threat may be strong enough to produce steps toward peace.

"For this to work, we have to have the major Arab states on board and involved. They understand the threat posed by Iran" with its development of nuclear technology and its support of militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, said a senior Netanyahu aide familiar with the talks. "It is in no one's interest to see Hamas take over the West Bank."

The two days of talks included Netanyahu's first meeting with Mitchell since Netanyahu became prime minister March 31. He is expected to meet President Obama in Washington in May and to present the results of a Israeli policy review on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the next steps are far from clear.

Arab states and the Palestinians are expecting some movement from Netanyahu on issues important to them -- a freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, for example. Netanyahu's government has all but ruled out unilateral concessions, contending that negotiations on core issues such as land must wait until security improves and Palestinian economic and civil institutions become stronger.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are struggling to speak with one voice. As Abbas met with Mitchell, the two top Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip made appearances in mosques Friday and vowed never to recognize Israel. Hamas, whose founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and subsequently seized control of Gaza from Abbas's more moderate Fatah movement, which still controls the West Bank.

The two rival Palestinian factions have held sporadic reconciliation talks in Cairo.

"Every effort is being made to achieve national unity," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "If we can't do it for ourselves, nobody can."

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