Israeli and Palestinian leaders held their second round of direct peace talks in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday. US envoy George Mitchell described it as a “serious discussion on core issues” and announced that the drafting of a framework agreement on a final status solution was “well under way.”
But for those thinking that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are going to be different this time around, Tuesday’s summit marked the point where the peace process turned on to the familiar track of making Israel the scapegoat for the lack of peace in the Middle East.
Going into the summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly suggested that Israel would be to blame should the current negotiations fail.
“Israel must extend the settlement freeze for the peace talks to succeed,” said Clinton, referring to Israel’s self-imposed 10-month Jewish building freeze in Judea and Samaria, which the Palestinians insist must be extended indefinitely.
Prior to the renewal of direct negotiations on September 2 in Washington, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his refusal to meet with a willing Netanyahu had been seen in the US and Europe as the main obstacle to peace.
But Abbas has managed to shrewdly turn the tables by waiting until the very last minute to accept Netanyahu’s freeze gesture, which was originally implemented in order to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, or to show the world that Israel had no peace partner.
Now that Abbas is at the table, a seemingly heroic feat after the past year of diplomatic stagnation, Washington will do anything to keep him there. And Abbas knows it, hence his daily declaration that if any Jewish construction whatsoever resumes in Judea and Samaria, he will quit the negotiations. It is important to remember that when Abbas makes that threat, he is also talking about the eastern half of Jerusalem, where hundreds of thousands of Jews currently live in large Jewish neighborhoods, but which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Netanyahu continues to say that the freeze will expire as planned on September 26, but a growing number of Israelis don’t see how he could possibly keep that promise considering the weight of international pressure. Netanyahu hopes to have his cake and eat it too by letting the freeze expire, but severely restricting what was previously a booming construction industry in Judea and Samaria.
But Abbas is unlikely to allow Netanyahu even that much slack, and the Obama Administration appears set on impressing upon the Israeli leader certain limits.
According to Israel’s Channel One News, Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Washington on Sunday for a previously unplanned meeting with administration officials. The news anchor said that the trip is “90 percent certain,” but had no further details of what will be discussed. Of course, it is fairly easy to surmise that the meeting has been called so that US President Barack Obama can get up close and personal with Netanyahu about putting an end to Jewish settlement and growth on the Jews’ historic and biblical heartland.
Further than that, there is very little information available regarding the current talks. Israeli and American officials have said that most of the negotiations are deliberately taking place behind the scenes to prevent the media and public opinion from influencing the leaders involved.
Israelis have heard that kind of thing before, and in the past it meant that the talks were taking place largely in secret to prevent an Israeli outcry or even a toppling of the Israeli government over excessive concessions or the breaching of Israeli red lines.