Israelis, Palestinians agree not to embarrass Obama before midterm elections

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2010 

JERUSALEM — The Obama administration has secured pledges from senior Mideast leaders to continue their fitful peace negotiations until after next month's U.S. midterm elections, largely to avoid handing the Obama administration an embarrassing diplomatic setback before the Nov. 2 elections.

Israeli and Palestinian officials told McClatchy Tuesday that efforts to reach a compromise would continue until at least Nov. 3, a move they said "served the current American government."

"The time frame we are following has been designed around the elections in America," said a senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team. "We have been asked not to issue announcements that could embarrass negotiation officials."

He and Israeli officials declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Whether the move will improve the Obama administration's chances of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement remains to be seen, however. The Arab League and the Palestinian government have announced that they'd seek "alternatives" to the stalled U.S.-led negotiations.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an advisor to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians are studying options "including going to the U.N. and to the Security Council," referring to U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Rabbo added that he thought, "There will be no serious and genuine peace process as long as this Netanyahu government continues to exist. This government is not earnest in its intentions to seek peace in the region."

Israel blamed Palestinians for not committing fully to the peace talks, but Israeli officials said they'd continue to participate in the negotiations.

"We are aware that this is a sensitive political time. It is clear to us that we will continue to seek a compromise until at least that date," said a senior Israeli cabinet official, who like others agreed to speak only the condition of anonymity. He added that all the issues were being discussed behind closed doors and that there's an agreement not to discuss the terms of the negotiations with the news media.

Israeli and Palestinian officials launched the current round of peace talks in a highly publicized ceremony at the White House on Sept. 2. A few weeks later, when an Israeli moratorium on settlement building expired and Israeli settlers started hundreds of building projects across the West Bank, the talks hit a crisis from which they've never recovered.

Palestinians say the settlements are illegal under international law, and are built on land that they say is earmarked for a future Palestinian state. Abbas has refused to continue negotiations as long as Israeli continues to expand its settlements.

The Israeli cabinet official said the compromises being discussed would allow for an approximate 60-day additional moratorium on construction — a short-term fix that would allow negotiations to continue for that long.

"It is clear that a limited fix is all that is being discussed at this juncture," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a largely right-wing coalition that supports the settlements. Nearly half of that coalition has threatened to disband if Netanyahu launched another extensive settlement freeze.

An official in Netanyahu's office confirmed that Israel's position is to continue seeking compromises through the U.S. midterm elections. He added, however, that Netanyahu's administration is "eagerly awaiting" the results of the election.

"There is a feeling that (President Barack) Obama could increase pressure on us after the election, when he doesn't have to worry about the pro-Israel lobby affecting election outcomes," he said.

An article in a leading Israeli daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, however, quoted "aides close to Netanyahu" saying that if Democrats fared poorly in the midterm elections, Netanyahu would be less likely to give into White House demands.

"Netanyahu and Abu Mazen's (Abbas's) target date is November 3, a day after the midterm elections in the United States. Abu Mazen hopes that Obama will impose an arrangement on Israel," Yediot said. "Netanyahu hopes that he will succeed in repelling the American president's initiative by means of friends of Israel in the House of Representatives, which is expected to have a Republican majority that is opposed to Obama."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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