A Turning Point
In recent days there have been significant developments in efforts to re-launch Israel-Palestinian peace talks that have been suspended since late 2008.
Last week envoys from the White House National Security Council and the office of Senator Mitchell traveled to Jerusalem and met with Israeli and Palestinian authorities. They received whatever assurances were needed from the two sides to permit Senator George Mitchell to return late in the week. After Mitchell met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, he reportedly issued them each invitations to start “proximity” talks in two weeks.
If talks start soon, as expected, this will be a significant accomplishment for Mitchell’s quiet and persistent diplomacy. After false starts and months of negotiation, talks were almost launched in early March, only to be derailed by the Israeli announcement of plans for 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. While Netanyahu has said he will not rescind the building permits issued or promise to freeze all new construction in East Jerusalem, in fact no new permits have been issued. There is a de facto freeze on new construction in East Jerusalem, at least for now.
Direct talks will be needed eventually, but indirect talks were needed now to reassure the Palestinians, and they have some advantages. Direct talks took place on and off for 18 years while Israeli housing and infrastructure expanded into Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. As a result Palestinians have insisted they would not enter into negotiations now as long as the housing expansion continues. Prime Minister Netanyahu was not willing (or able) to say he would freeze new construction in East Jerusalem. Indirect talks are a way to address Palestinian and Arab concerns by putting the U.S. in the middle. The U.S. will then be directly wedded to the negotiating process and in a position to make suggestions, help work around problems, and hold both sides accountable for answers to proposals.
Many tensions remain. The longer the de facto Israeli freeze remains on new Israeli housing in East Jerusalem, the greater the political pressure will build on Prime Mister Netanyahu from right wing parties in his coalition to allow construction to go ahead. The Mayor of Jerusalem keeps saying that new construction will go forward. Palestinians will remain under pressure from Arab states to cut off talks if new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem goes forward.
Eventually, a political realignment of the Israeli coalition government may be required for further progress. This might well require the exit of right wing parties from the present coalition and the addition of the Kadima party, headed by Tzipi Livni, currently the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. Livni has said she will only join or lead a government that is serious about negotiations leading to creation of a Palestinian state — the two state solution.