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Israeli-Palestinian peace talk deal eludes Obama envoy

George J. Mitchell leaves the Middle East after six days of talks failed to bridge the gaps over issues including Jewish settlement expansion on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

September 19, 2009|Richard Boudreaux and Paul Richter

JERUSALEM AND WASHINGTON — President Obama's Middle East envoy ended his most intensive round of shuttle diplomacy Friday without an agreement on one of the administration's top foreign policy goals, restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks as a step toward a broader regional peace.

U.S. officials had hoped to coax enough concessions from Israel and the Palestinian Authority to allow Obama to announce a regional peace initiative next week. The timing is sensitive because a new series of talks on Palestinian statehood, the administration believes, could bolster the United States in a looming showdown with Iran on its nuclear ambitions.

But the American envoy, George J. Mitchell, left the region Friday after six days of talks failed to bridge gaps on several issues, notably Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

U.S. officials said mediation efforts would continue even if the administration does not realize its hope of arranging a meeting next week of Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A meeting of the three is viewed now as a longshot, even though they will converge in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly's annual opening session.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the administration is "very determined" to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord but cannot impose a solution.

"We are going to do all we can to persuade, cajole, encourage the parties themselves to make that agreement," she said at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Mitchell this week described a sense of urgency for peace talks to resume "in the very near future." He met four times with Netanyahu and twice with Abbas, trying to bring them together. The latest round of direct talks in the decades-old conflict broke off in December, before Obama and Netanyahu took office.

Mitchell failed to break a deadlock over Jewish settlements that has caused months of open friction between the new Israeli and American administrations.

Israel has balked at U.S. demands that it halt settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most countries consider construction by Israel in those areas, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and has populated with nearly 500,000 Jews, to be a violation of international law. A peace plan sponsored by the U.S. and others, the 2003 "road map," required Israel to freeze settlement building.

Netanyahu offered to reduce settlement activity for several months, but he insisted that 2,400 housing units already under construction would be completed and that building would continue in East Jerusalem without limit.

After signs of quiet progress toward a compromise, positions hardened two weeks ago when Israel disclosed plans to build an additional 455 homes for settlers and exempt them from any freeze.

In a speech last week to members of his right-wing Likud party, which has close ties to settler groups, Netanyahu said Israel would not yield.

"We are willing to make concessions for peace, but we won't be suckers," he declared.

Abbas told Mitchell on Friday that he remained opposed to peace talks without a full halt to construction.

"There are no middle-ground solutions for settlements," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after the meeting in Ramallah in the West Bank. "A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze."

The impasse has hindered Mitchell's effort to win Arab promises to move toward normal ties with Israel. The envoy visited Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt this week to seek such promises as steps toward peace between the Jewish state and its Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese neighbors.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the administration contributed to the standoff by raising Palestinian and Arab expectations that Netanyahu would accept a total settlement freeze.

"Now it has the unpleasant task of telling Abbas that this may be the best that could be achieved, and maybe it's time to move on to the next phase." Abbas "now feels that he's stuck in a box," Makovsky said.

In Jerusalem, Mitchell encountered other stumbling blocks. Netanyahu is reluctant to accept a U.S.-proposed time limit for creating a Palestinian state and insists that conflicting claims to Jerusalem, part of which the Palestinians want as their capital, should be off-limits in peace talks.

An Israeli official, without commenting on the content of the discussions, acknowledged Friday that gaps remain. But he said Netanyahu was ready to meet with Obama and Abbas and move ahead with negotiations.

U.S. and Palestinian officials would not rule out the possibility of a three-way meeting next week, even though an aide to Abbas, Ghassan Khatib, said that "he is trying his best to avoid one."

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