Growing Rifts, Abbas's Crisis Dim Hope for Talks

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 15, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct. 14 -- A political crisis for the Palestinian Authority and growing doubts about American mediation have deeply undercut chances that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will resume in the near future, according to officials and analysts on both sides.

After nine months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell, the gap between Israeli and Palestinian leaders appears to have grown, and it now includes not only a dispute over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, but also renewed tension over Jerusalem, disagreement over the framework for the talks and controversy over a U.N. report on alleged war crimes during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitchell report to the White House next week on the administration's goal of restarting the peace talks, they will be describing a situation that has arguably regressed, particularly in the three weeks since a high-level session in New York involving President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama has set a goal of relaunching the peace talks by the end of the year. U.S. officials noted that Mitchell is continuing discussions in Washington with Israeli officials this week and Palestinian officials next week to keep probing whether there are ways around the impasse.

"The fact that they are still talking means there is something to talk about," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Obama named Mitchell as his peace envoy just one day after taking office in an effort to demonstrate to Arabs and Europeans that he was deeply invested in achieving a peace deal. Mitchell was given instructions to set the stage for talks by negotiating a package deal that included an Israeli settlement freeze and incremental steps by Arab states toward normalization of relations with Israel.

But the settlement push backfired. It raised hopes among Palestinians, who began to demand nothing less than a full freeze, and led to severe tensions in U.S.-Israeli relations. Obama abruptly shifted course last month at the three-way meeting, calling for immediate talks, but it has since become apparent that both sides were dug in.

"The peace process, by all indications, appears to be at an impasse," Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Wednesday during a two-hour news conference in which he acknowledged that Abbas had been put in a position of "major weakness" because of decisions made in consultation with the United States.

That erosion in domestic support has left the Palestinian Authority's leadership struggling to regroup. Instead of exclusively placing their hopes for statehood on talks under U.S. auspices, Palestinian leaders say they will also focus on taking a tougher line with Israel before the United Nations and other international bodies.

At Palestinian insistence, the U.N. Human Rights Council is scheduled to debate the war crimes report Thursday -- a discussion that two weeks ago the Palestinian Authority had agreed, at U.S. insistence, to put off for six months.

That delay proved to be a critical misstep for Abbas, undermining his political standing at home and his ability to lead Palestinian society into new negotiations with the Israelis.

Although still voicing hope that U.S. involvement will yield a breakthrough, Fayyad said that Mitchell, in his talks with the Israelis, has not been able to produce a clear vision for how a resumption of the negotiations will resolve core issue such as the establishment of borders, authority over Jerusalem and Palestinian control over key areas of the West Bank, such as the Jordan Valley.

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