Israel, Palestinians move closer to indirect peace talks

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 4:44 PM

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday crept closer to indirect peace talks as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to set the rules for Palestinian statehood discussions.

Given how often Israelis and Palestinians have met face-to-face over the past 17 years, achieving the rather modest goal of indirect talks led by a U.S. mediator has proven staggeringly difficult.

One reason is that, rather than hold a dialogue over incremental, confidence-building measures, the sides have agreed to discuss the fundamental issues that divide them: the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

The real stalemate in recent months has been over the sequencing.

Israel would prefer that negotiations begin with a discussion of security arrangements and a Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, an Israeli official said.

Achieving the latter at the outset would essentially mean a Palestinian renunciation of "the right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees.

For the Palestinians, the two paramount issues are territorial borders -- precisely how much of the West Bank Israel will surrender and the future of Jerusalem.

Skeptical about the usefulness of "proximity talks," the Palestinians want "a timetable and terms of reference" to be outlined on the core issues, a Palestinian official said.

"We want the U.S. to introduce bridging proposals because everybody is talking about a two-state solution without making any definition or explanation of which kind of border we are talking about or which size Palestinian state we are talking about," the official added.

Despite a climate of mistrust, the Obama administration has decided to delve deeply into Middle East peacemaking, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying recently that the lack of progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace is affecting U.S. national security interests in the region.

Mitchell, who has been informally shuttling between the sides, met with Netanyahu for three hours in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening and plans to see him again Thursday, the prime minister's office said.

On Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may formally agree to a resumption of negotiations that have been dormant for the past 16 months.

"Hopefully, we'll see Senator Mitchell on Saturday evening and we plan to hand him the answer and then we will take it from there," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

If Mitchell does formally announce the proximity talks Saturday, he will have to navigate a minefield of mistrust and provocation that could derail the process at any moment.

Israel accuses the Palestinians of fueling violence and being insincere about peace, while the Palestinians, despite a temporary Israeli settlement freeze, point to Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as signs that Israel never intends to make concessions.

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