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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.

Absent a set of terms and a time frame for the creation of a viable state -- rather than the "Mickey Mouse" state that he accused Netanyahu of envisioning for the Palestinians -- Fayyad said the discussions will not resume.

"The approach of getting the two sides to sit and talk without preconditions, without terms of reference, is a killer to our side politically, and this was made clear" to Mitchell, said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian academic and spokesman for the government.

Netanyahu has said he wants to reopen the talks without preconditions. His government has refused to take steps, such as freezing West Bank settlement construction, that the United States, the European Union and others have advocated. Israel agreed to freeze settlements and dismantle dozens of unauthorized outposts under the 2003 "road map" peace plan but has done neither. Palestinians argue that their work in improving West Bank security in recent years needs to be matched with Israeli progress on settlements and other issues. Israel counters that it has the right to build within existing settlements to accommodate the "natural growth" of populations there.

After the three-way meeting in New York last month, Mitchell engaged in intense talks in Washington and in the region, hoping that the president's personal intervention and sense of urgency would produce results.

The impasse poses a dilemma for Obama as his administration decides what to do next. Netanyahu has agreed to a temporary settlement freeze in parts of the West Bank but has been adamant that building will continue throughout Jerusalem, including in the traditionally Arab neighborhoods that Palestinians expect to form the capital of a future state.

Abbas, a relatively moderate leader who favors negotiations over violence, has less and less room to maneuver. Members of his own Fatah movement have questioned his judgment over the U.N. report and expressed increasing impatience over the lack of progress despite the high expectations raised by Obama's election. The party's Revolutionary Council is due to meet Friday and is expected to reaffirm the policy of not negotiating until Israel stops building on land in the West Bank and parts of eastern Jerusalem.

The rival Islamist Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, has tried to capitalize on Abbas's troubles. His term expires in January, and with no clear schedule for new elections, there is growing likelihood that some sort of interim arrangement will be needed to keep him in power.

The Israeli government has taken notice of Abbas's difficulties. Two weeks ago, as the war crimes report was heading to apparent endorsement by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Israeli officials issued blistering statements accusing Abbas and the Palestinians of incitement against them and demanding that the report be withdrawn.

But after Abbas supported the delay in the council's consideration of the report, orders went down through the Israeli Foreign Ministry and elsewhere to halt criticism of the Palestinian leader. "It was very dramatic, substantial and quick," said an Israeli government official, who spoke about the issue on the condition of anonymity. "It took a perverse turn."

Under fire from a broad spectrum of Palestinians, Abbas reversed his position. The resolution now being considered by the Human Rights Council has been expanded beyond the war crimes report to include a condemnation of recent Israeli restrictions on access to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Israeli officials say the restrictions were necessary to curb the potential for clashes in the surrounding area, considered holy to both Muslims and Jews, during recent religious holidays. The restrictions have since been lifted.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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