Israelis, Palestinians agree: Obama mediation effort a failure

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 8, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian leaders traded accusations Wednesday over who was to blame for the collapse of talks that the Obama administration had hoped would lead to a comprehensive peace settlement within a year.

Both sides agreed, however, that the Obama administration wasn't in a position to mediate a final peace deal.

The White House announced Tuesday that it had given up on its efforts to persuade Israel to freeze construction at Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The freeze was a key demand of the Palestinians before they would engage in face-to-face talks with the Israelis.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "succeeded in torpedoing the peace talks" by refusing to freeze settlement construction. Nir Hefetz, a Netanyahu spokesman, said the Palestinians were finding "excuses" for refusing to talk.

The collapse of the talks was a major blow to President Barack Obama's foreign policy efforts. Only in September, the administration had trumpeted its efforts, saying it intended to bring the two sides together in face-to-face talks.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the failure of the Obama administration to make Israel stop construction raised questions about whether American officials were capable of overseeing the peace talks.

"The one who couldn't make Israel limit its settlement activities in order to conduct serious negotiations, how can he be able to make Israel accept a fair solution?" Abed Rabbo told the Voice of Palestine radio station.

In Greece, Abbas told a radio station that the European Union should seek a bigger role in mediating a peace deal, a position the Palestinians have been advocating since European nations began taking a harder line with Israel on the settlement issue.

Israel's West Bank settlements are considered illegal under international law. U.S. officials have called them a key stumbling block to peace negotiations.

Palestinians think that the settlements are built on land that's earmarked for their future state. Continuing Jewish expansion in the West Bank creates "impossible" conditions for real peace talks, Erekat said.

While Netanyahu's senior ministerial Cabinet kept mum on the future of the peace talks, the largely right-wing Israeli parties that make up his coalition gloated over their "victory."

Parliament Deputy Speaker Danny Danon praised Netanyahu for rebuffing U.S. efforts to force Israel into another "damaging and pointless" freeze.

He said Obama should realize that "the only way to justify his Nobel Peace Prize was by working closely" with the Israeli leader rather than weakening him.

Danny Dayan, a spokesman for the settlements, said that Israel had not given in "to the Americans' bizarre and extreme demands."

Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scheduled to visit the United States for a conference next week. American negotiators were angling to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the conference that would lay the groundwork for indirect talks.

Indirect, or "proximity," talks involve U.S. negotiators shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah to relay position papers and demands. American officials held indirect talks for months before they announced the launch of direct negotiations in a much-publicized ceremony Sept. 2 on the White House lawn.

That announcement was trumpeted as a major Obama foreign-policy initiative ahead of the November elections.

But Israeli and Palestinian promises to take "serious steps" toward direct negotiations never materialized, and U.S. officials were unable even to set a timetable for talks after a previous settlement-construction freeze expired.

U.S. officials suggested a number of possible compromises, including a $3 billion defense deal that included 20 F-35 jet fighters in exchange for a 90-day freeze, a deal the Israelis rejected. But on Tuesday, the Obama administration admitted that no amount of incentives could lure Israel to renew a moratorium on settlement construction.

"We have been pursuing a moratorium as a means to create conditions for a return to meaningful and sustained negotiations," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said. "After a considerable effort, we have concluded that this does not create a firm basis to work towards our shared goal of a framework agreement."

Israeli officials said they were unconcerned that the failure of the talks would damage U.S.-Israeli relations.

Palestinians said that their next step might be to declare an independent state without Israel's agreement in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

"It can't be business as usual," Erekat said, pointing to nearly two decades of failed attempts at peace talks.

Brazil and Argentina announced last week that they'd recognize a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, and Uruguay pledged to do the same next year. State Department spokesman Crowley described Brazil's move as "counterproductive."

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