Local and international media outlets on Thursday were full of stories of the purportedly positive meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem a day earlier.
But those stories also contained a tidbit of information that suggested the Obama Administration sees the renewed negotiations going nowhere, and is already set to move on to its next peace effort: restarting Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
Netanyahu and Abbas met together with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American peace envoy George Mitchell for several hours at the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
Official sources that attended the meeting told Yediot Ahronot that while the atmosphere was warm, there were moments of tension, such as when Netanyahu told Abbas that Israel will resume construction in Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria later this month. Abbas responded by again threatening to quit the negotiations if the Jewish building freeze is not extended indefinitely. Clinton and Mitchell reportedly suggested that Israel break the freeze only in “major settlement blocs.”
Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat later insisted to reporters that Abbas was not making preconditions, but rather demanding that Israel finally fulfill what Erekat termed its “obligation” to stop building homes for Jews in areas claimed by the Palestinians.
While Israel has agreed in previous rounds of talks to not build any new settlements, the “Oslo Accords,” the Wye River Memorandum, the Road Map peace plan, and the Annapolis understandings all provide for continued natural growth inside the boundaries of existing Jewish settlements.
The problem is even more acute when it comes to Jerusalem. Israel has never agreed to any kind of restrictions on Jewish building in Jerusalem, which Israel officially annexed in 1982. But Abbas, Erekat and the rest of the Palestinian leadership say that not only must the Jewish building freeze continue in Judea and Samaria, but it must also now include the eastern half of Jerusalem. All this, or the Palestinians walk.
Despite the seemingly impassible roadblock the talks have hit, or rather will hit when the Jewish building freeze officially expires on September 26, Mitchell tried to paint a positive picture.
“Within a matter of literally days since this process began, the leaders have engaged directly, vigorously with what are among the most difficult and sensitive issues that they will confront,” said Mitchell after Wednesday’s meeting. “The US believes this is a strong indictor of their sincerity and seriousness of purpose.”
Mitchell tried to compare the situation to Northern Ireland, where he brokered the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He noted that in those negotiations, it took nearly two years before the sides had a serious meeting about important issues.
However, Mitchell then indicated that Washington believes this round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will end like its predecessors when he announced that the US had started working on restarting Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Mitchell was expected to fly to Damascus as part of that effort on Thursday.
Israel cannot conduct serious peace negotiations with both the Palestinians and another Arab entity at the same time, as conflicting (or nefariously coordinated) demands would make it impossible for Israel to move forward. The US government knows this, and in the past whenever Washington started pushing the Israeli-Syrian track it was because there was an understanding that talks with the Palestinians were going nowhere.