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Israeli-Palsetinian Talks Within Two Weeks?

Defense Minister Barak:'Hopefully U.S. Envoy George Mitchell Will Launch Israeli-Palestinian Proximity Talks Within Two Weeks'

US State Department Cautions Against Breakthrough During Mitchell's Current Meetings With Israeli & Palestinian Leaders

IsraCast Assessment: U.S. Apparently Ready To Urge Palestinians To Accept Netanyahu Latest Gestures As Basis For Launching Proximity Talks

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

After the recent tension between Jerusalem and Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has spoken optimistically about the launching of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks within two weeks. U.S. mediator George Mitchell has returned to the area, meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah with the aim of getting the negotiations underway. After rejecting an American and Palestinian demand to freeze building in eastern Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has offered a package of concessions that may lead to a break in the logjam. However, back in Washington the State Department spokesman has cautioned against an imminent breakthrough. Analyst David Essing assesses the current state of play.

Is the furor over Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem about to be resolved enabling Israel and the Palestinians to finally launch their long awaited proximity talks? After American envoy George Mitchell's latest visit to Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke optimistically about the negotiations getting underway within two weeks. The current logjam resulted from an Israeli announcement, during the recent visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, that 1600 new housing units would be built in eastern Jerusalem. The Obama administration backed the Palestinian position in condemning the move and suspending the negotiations. Tension rose between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama with the Israeli leader declaring he had 'red lines' on Jerusalem and he would not agree to a building freeze in Israel's capital. After weeks of rancorous charges from Washington, Netanyahu has offered a basket of goodwill gestures to the Palestinians that reportedly includes such issues as the release of more Palestinian prisoners, the further lifting of IDF roadblocks and transfer of security control where possible in Judea & Samaria, and no 'provocative steps' in Jerusalem. This has apparently done the trick in Washington. Since Israel's Independence Day on April 20th, Obama and other officials have softened their tone and stressed the special relationship between the two states.

Bibi Netanyahu

If Mitchell has urged the Palestinians to accept the Israeli peace offering, and the Arab League has no objection, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to go along. Barak, who is thought to have Netanyahu's ear more than any other minister, has been warning of the consequences of the rift with the U.S., particularly in face of the Iranian nuclear threat. Not that Netanyahu was unaware. The Defense Minister has been calling for an Israeli peace initiative and has apparently swayed the PM to take this direction. And Barak told Channel 1 TV that the coalition should be expanded if Right- wing hardliners threaten to bolt the cabinet. Land of Israel ideology or not, no Israeli PM in his right mind wants to be at odds with the U.S. with the specter of a nuclear Iran looming greater day by day. But Netanyahu could not have capitulated to Obama's demand on Jerusalem - if he had the Right-wingers, even from within his own Likud party, would have toppled him. Obama, eager to show the Arab world he could get tough with Israel, pushed Netanyahu as far as possible. However, the U.S. President and his aides realized there was a limit and Netanyahu could not be forced to walk the extra mile, if that meant walking off the cliff. For example, opinion polls show that 70% of Israelis opposed the American demand for the Jerusalem building freeze. So Netanyahu took his stand on his red lines and the U.S. has apparently accepted Netanyahu's goodwill gestures. On this score, the Netanyahu-Barak team is perhaps the best leadership that Washington can hope for. Barak, the Labor Party leader who fully supports the two-solution and separation from the Palestinians whereas Netanyahu is the only Right-wing leader who could lead a majority of Israelis into any major deals with the Arabs. This would be in keeping with the theory that only Likud prime ministers like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon can rally an Israeli majority for tough territorial concessions. It goes without saying that an Obama attempt to actually topple Netanyahu would probably provoke political chaos in the Jewish state, something that is not in America's interest nor that of the Arab world including the Palestinians.

In welcoming Mitchell back to Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared:' We're serious about making peace, we know you are and we hope the Palestinians are. We need to move this process forward'. However, far more is at stake than just the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as important as it may be. In facing the Iranian nuclear threat, it is crucial that Jerusalem smooth over any sharp differences with Washington. This is the interest not only of Israel, but also the U.S. and the moderate Arab states who are worried about an fanatic Iran armed with nuclear weapons. The Israeli building announcement, probably bureaucratic bungling at its worst, had to be rectified and Netanyahu has apparently paid the penalty after the Obama administration did what it thought needed to be done, to show the Arab world it was not in Israel's pocket just days before the proximity talks were to begin. The 'art of the possible' was pursued by all sides to a logical conclusion that would at least enable the start of a new negotiating process. But if the procedural path has been cleared of the Jerusalem roadblock, the substantive core issues are far apart, far more with Netanyahu than with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who made enormous concessions that Mahmoud Abbas discounted as not going far enough. There is no way that Netanyahu will come even close to what most Israelis consider as 'giving away the store'. Olmert says he agreed to the internationalization of Jerusalem, withdrawal from nearly all of Judea & Samaria and a deal to accept some Palestinian refugees. Abbas now demands that Olmert's final offer should be the starting point for even greater Israeli concessions. There is no way this is going to happen. Ehud Barak went through the Palestinian machinations at Camp David 2000 when he also made big concessions that were not accepted by Yasser Arafat, and although he is pushing for an Israeli peace initiative he cannot be under any illusions about the Palestinian readiness to compromise.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad has warned that if there is no agreement to the Palestinians' liking by 2011, they will unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state. But another year or so is a long time for Israel and Defense Minister Barak, for one, will likely be more than pleased if the Jewish state can get through this crucial period on good terms with the U.S. when tough decisions may have to be made on whether military action should be taken against Iran. The Iranians after buying several months more time, by waltzing two steps back and one forward, on the nuclear fuel issue are again up to their old tricks with a new convoluted proposal designed to gain more time as they keep spinning the centrifuges. Although the Obama administration has been dawdling diplomatically over the sanctions issue, there may soon be a greater sense of urgency emanating from Washington. The Iranian nuclear penny may have dropped after a U.S. intelligence report that Tehran is working on a continental ballistic missile with a range of hitting America's eastern seaboard within five years.

Shas: Last month's building announcement was issued by the Interior Ministry that is headed by Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-orthodox Shas party. Yishai is known for his bellicose statements against compromising on the Land of Israel. However, the all-powerful religious leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has now repeated the statement he made years ago about territorial compromise is permissible if it saves lives. Might this be connected with a visit by State President Shimon Peres to an ultra-orthodox institution where Peres declared: 'I am proud that in the Jewish state, Jewish men are enabled to study the Torah'. At the time, the President was criticized in secular quarters for seeming to justify draft-dodging by most ultra-orthodox young men, who are entitled to study at religious seminaries, rather than doing military service.

David Essing

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