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Mitchell's moment of truth

By: Patrick Seale, Gulf News

07.05.2010

George Mitchell, US President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, deserves a modest round of applause. His patient coaxing of Israelis and Palestinians over the past 15 months is about to bear fruit: indirect talks between the parties are due to begin within days.

There is no denying, however, the intense distrust with which both sides view the coming negotiations or the yawning gap between their positions. Mitchell's hard work is about to begin.

The so-called ‘proximity talks' are expected to see him shuttling back and forth between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If progress is achieved within four months — which is by no means certain — direct negotiations could then take place, with Mitchell still very much in control of the process.

How can one account for Mitchell's success so far, partial though it is? Clearly, a key factor has been the firm backing he enjoys from Obama, who has himself been strengthened by his recent achievements: the passage into law of health care reform, the new Start treaty with Russia, the likely regulation of the financial system, and a general recovery of presidential authority and momentum after a difficult first year in office.

Netanyahu knows that he cannot afford a public row with a strong American president. He cannot put at risk the lavish military, financial and diplomatic backing Israel receives from its American patron. In right-wing Israeli circles, there is always the fear that a breach with Washington could lead to defections from Netanyahu's coalition, resulting in its inevitable collapse. Indeed, some suspect that Obama's real aim is Netanyahu's overthrow.

But Netanyahu has by no means given up his determination to incorporate occupied east Jerusalem into Israel's ‘eternal and undivided capital'. Not have his far-right coalition partners given up their ‘Greater Israel' ambitions. They have to tread carefully, however. Delays will have to be agreed and adjustments made.

Obama has so far played it rather cleverly. He has made it clear that he expects real concessions from Israel in exchange for his repeated pledges of unwavering support for Israel's security, his pressure on Iran's nuclear programme, and his overt displeasure with Syria for arming Hezbollah. Just this week, Obama maintained in place the sanctions against Syria which George W. Bush introduced.

But, as the Wall Street Journal reported last Saturday, the United States has also been conducting negotiations with Egypt on a proposal to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone — a goal Cairo has long sought. The implication is that if Netanyahu continues to be obstructive on the peace front, the Obama administration will no longer keep silent about Israel's nuclear arsenal, but will join the international community in pressuring it to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So there is both carrot and stick in Obama's approach.

The deal Mitchell has ingeniously concocted provides for a four-month colony building freeze in occupied east Jerusalem, but one which — to save Netanyahu's face — will be neither officially nor publicly announced. Clearly this does not meet minimum Palestinian demands. Putting a brave face on it, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared: "If Israel builds one [colony unit] on the West Bank, Palestinians will immediately stop the negotiations."

Concessions

In response to US demands, Netanyahu is said to have agreed to a two-year delay of any further discussion of the project to build 1,600 colony units in the Shu'fat quarter of occupied east Jerusalem — a project which triggered a crisis in US-Israeli relations when it was announced during Vice-President Joe Biden's recent visit to Israel.

Other concessions agreed by Netanyahu are said to include an extension of the partial freeze on West Bank colonies beyond the expiry date next September; the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners; the easing of the Gaza siege; the removal of some military checkpoints on the West Bank, and the reopening of some Palestinian institutions in occupied east Jerusalem such as Orient House and the Arab Chamber of Commerce. Needless to say, Netanyahu has insisted that these concessions will not be made all at once, but will be revealed gradually after the resumption of negotiations. If these go well, the concessions will be billed as Israeli goodwill gestures and not as a response to American demands.

In spite of their defiance, Israeli leaders are well aware, however, of the sharp deterioration in their country's international image on account of the devastating wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the continued oppression of the Palestinians. The latest evidence is the letter, signed by 3,000 European Jewish intellectuals, which was delivered to the European Parliament last Sunday. The letter calls Israel's occupation and colonies "morally and politically wrong", noting that they "feed the unacceptable de-legitimisation process that Israel currently faces abroad". Systematic support for Israeli government policy is dangerous, the letter says.

Netanyahu is clearly under pressure. But unless the Palestinians end their self-destructive feuding — and unless the Arab world starts to show some real muscle in their support — Netanyahu will survive, construction in the Occupied Territories will resume, and Mitchell will join the long list of American Middle East envoys who have failed.