New U.S. push for Mideast peace faces old obstacles

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2010 

JERUSALEM — A new U.S.-led initiative to revive Middle East peace talks faces steep hurdles even before it's launched, with Israelis and Palestinians resisting new concessions despite a fresh application of American diplomacy.

President Barack Obama's first efforts at brokering Middle East peace bore no fruit last year, and the White House now has crafted a two-year plan under which Israelis and Palestinians would hold regular, intense meetings to reach a final peace agreement.

Obama is sending his Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, on a series of trips to the region and to Europe starting next week. He's also enlisting the help of Arab allies, whose representatives are filing through Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met last week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who's been acting as an intermediary, said afterward that there was a "change in the atmosphere."

Despite Netanyahu's professed optimism, however, senior Israeli, U.S. and Palestinian officials said they had little hope of breaking the deadlock soon.

Jerusalem-based officials said that significant gaps remained on several key issues, particularly the ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim for their state.

"I am pessimistic that there will be any significant (peace) process for months," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. "I am deeply concerned at the rhetoric coming from the Palestinian leadership."

Palestinians have refused to budge on their key precondition for talks: a complete freeze to Israeli settlement construction in contested areas, including East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its capital.

Obama took office nearly a year ago pledging to make Israeli-Palestinian peace more of a priority than his predecessor had. Israel rebuffed his early demands for a complete settlement freeze, however, and the U.S. demands only hardened the Palestinian position.

Obama aides have expressed growing frustration at the situation. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the Israeli consul in Los Angeles late last year that the Obama administration was "fed up" with both sides.

Diplomatic officials confirmed the gist of Emanuel's comments, which Israeli news media first reported. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the comments involved confidential communications.

A White House official, who declined to be quoted for the record, said late Wednesday that Emanuel met Israel's Los Angeles consul, Jacob Dayan, briefly during a fund-raising event. The two discussed their "frustration that more progress hadn't been made in the peace process," the official said, adding that reports Emanuel had threatened U.S. disengagement from the issue were "ridiculous."

In a statement late Wednesday, Israel's Embassy in Washington said the article in Israel's newspaper Yediot Ahronot had distorted Emanuel's views. "During his visit to Los Angeles, Mr. Emanuel reiterated his unflagging commitment to Israel's security and his devotion to the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace," it said.

A senior U.S. official said that Mitchell would make an assessment after he traveled to the Middle East and conferred with European Union countries and other members of the diplomatic "quartet," which comprises the EU, the United States, the United Nations and Russia.

This official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss diplomatic strategy, said that Washington was seeking help from international partners to implement the new strategy.

Although there's been speculation that Obama might push the issue to the back burner, the senior official said Middle East peace "is a priority. We do not want to see this fester." At the same time, he said, "The ability of the parties to move forward is still a major question mark. ... We're not interested in a push to failure."

Israel thinks that it's taken steps forward with a partial settlement freeze and the removal of several key West Bank roadblocks, Ayalon said.

"Since this government has taken office — from the very first day — the prime minister, the foreign minister, every minister has said unequivocally that we will sit with the Palestinians unconditionally. It is the Palestinians that are rejecting the overtures and not Israel," Ayalon said.

Under U.S. pressure, Israel announced a partial freeze on settlement construction several months ago that doesn't include East Jerusalem. In recent weeks, Israeli housing officials have announced that hundreds of additional units will be built in mostly Arab East Jerusalem and in existing West Bank settlements.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pointed to such actions as impediments to peace talks.

"We are interested in negotiations, we do not object to resuming the meetings with the Israelis and we are not setting any preconditions, but at the same time in order for us to return there must be a halt to settlement building and recognition of the peace process' principles," Abbas said after meeting Mubarak on Monday.

A Palestinian official who's involved in negotiations and who also asked not to be identified said that the U.S. peace plan would be based on the 1967 cease-fire lines, but with some territorial exchanges that would allow Israel to keep its major settlement blocs in exchange for land elsewhere.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Strobel reported from Washington.)

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