Halt to Palestinian peace talks could become permanent

By Glenn Kessler and Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 6:58 PM

In perhaps the shortest round of peace negotiations in the history of their conflict, talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have ground to a halt and show little sign of resuming.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas haven't met since Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton brought the two together on Sept. 15 in Jerusalem, two weeks after President Obama launched the resumption of negotiations on Palestinian statehood in Washington with much fanfare, including the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Now, the nearly six-week pause threatens to become permanent.

Pressure to restart the talks eased after the Arab League said it would wait a month - until Nov. 8 - before ending Abbas's mandate for negotiations, thus pushing the issue beyond the U.S. midterm elections. But if Republicans score big gains, some Israelis argue, that could limit Obama's ability to pressure Israel to make concessions. U.S. peace envoy George J. Mitchell is supposed to return to the region, but no date has been set.

In a speech Wednesday to Palestinian peace activists, Clinton acknowledged that "I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse."

While the administration has set a goal of achieving an agreement less than 11 months from now, Clinton at one point suggested a much longer time frame: "The future holds the possibility of progress, if not in our lifetimes, then certainly in our children's."

The proximate cause of the breakdown is Israel's decision not to extend a 10-month partial freeze of settlement building on Palestinian lands, but in the view of many analysts, the problems go much deeper.

Momentum fails

The Obama administration, worried that the impending end of the settlement freeze would leave a potentially dangerous vacuum, rushed into talks without a plan for dealing with the end of the moratorium, officials acknowledge. The hope was that sheer momentum would carry the talks forward.

That decision has come with costs, including some to Obama's credibility. The president invested his personal prestige in launching the talks, and even appealed to Israel to extend the freeze during a speech at the U.N. General Assembly.

The Palestinians, taking their cue from previous administration statements, have made a settlement freeze a key requirement for continued talks, so any reversal in that stance would make them appear weak. Netanyahu, concerned about the impact an extension of the freeze would have on his right-leaning coalition, has put new demands on the table, such as upfront Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

"We knew exactly what might happen. We understood that the moratorium would be the first challenge right out of the box," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "That's why we set an early pace to be able to demonstrate to the parties that there was value in working to resolve the settlement moratorium. The decision to continue the negotiations rests with the parties. We knew full well we could not dictate what they could or would do based on their internal politics."

Administration officials have privately approached both sides with sweeteners to induce them back to the table. To buy 60 days more for a settlement freeze from Israel, the administration floated a long list of security incentives. When Netanyahu didn't bite, Abbas was wooed with something he had long demanded - a U.S. commitment to begin the negotiations using the map of Israel before the 1967 Six-Day War. But that effort did not move the Palestinians.

U.S. officials hope that if they manage to get a two-month extension, they could quickly push the two sides to reach a deal on borders, or at least identify which settlements would ultimately remain with Israel, thus making the settlement dispute moot. But few experts - or Israeli or Palestinian officials - say they believe such an agreement could be reached so quickly.

Settlement a roadblock

Netanyahu has told associates he personally wouldn't mind extending the freeze in the West Bank. But he thinks he won't be able to sell it domestically without anything concrete from the Palestinians in return, an Israeli official said. The package of proposed security guarantees from the United States wasn't enough, he added, and Netanyahu would prefer to discuss all concessions in tandem and then put forth a comprehensive deal to the Israeli public.

That logic has failed to impress many commentators in Israel who worry that Netanyahu is endangering Israel's security and its relationship with Washington with diplomatic maneuvering that appears to be more tactical than designed to broker a historic peace agreement.

Citing new figures showing housing starts soaring in West Bank settlements and a general impression that Netanyahu has no intention of surrendering territory and making a peace deal, Palestinian negotiators have grown dismissive of the prospect of a negotiated solution.

Asked whether he was still a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, Muhammad Shatayeh said Friday by telephone: "That's right. But there are no negotiations.''

Apart from a phone call Wednesday from Mitchell to Abbas, nothing is happening, he said.

"These people, Uzi Arad and others, their priority is actually not the Palestinian issue,'' Shatayeh said of Netanyahu's national security adviser, who has said publicly in recent months that it was a mistake to try to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. "Of course it is Iran.''

Reflecting the faltering faith in the Obama administration's ability to broker a settlement, Shatayeh said the Palestinians could appeal to the United States and the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state soon.

"We are going to go to Washington to recognize a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. If that doesn't work, we'll go to the U.N. Security Council and will ask Washington not to veto,'' Shatayeh said. If Washington vetoes, he said, then the Palestinians will take their case to the U.N. General Assembly.

kesslerg@washpost.com zachariaj@washpost.com

Zacharia reported from Jerusalem.

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