04/23/2010, 00.00
ISRAEL – PALESTINE – US
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Uncertainty surrounds Mitchell’s mission

The US Mideast envoy has a difficult job ahead. He is in Jerusalem to jumpstart peace talks. The Palestinians demand a settlement freeze; Netanyahu responds that they will not stop in Jerusalem; the State Department notes, “We don't go to meet just to meet.”
Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “"I am saying one thing. There will be no freeze in Jerusalem," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said. "Our policy in Jerusalem will not change. It's not just my policy; it's the policy of all my predecessors since 1967.” With these words, Netanyahu curtly reiterated Israel’s long-standing position on settlements, but one that has recently led to unprecedented tensions with the United States.

Netanyahu made his statement yesterday on Israeli TV, on the eve of the visit by US Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who, shortly after arriving today, met Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak (pictured) and is set to meet the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite this background, Mitchell’s mission is not without reason. “We don't go to meet just to meet State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. “We go there because we have some indication that both sides are willing to engage seriously on the issues.”

“We understand,” Crowley added, “that the Israelis have a long-standing position.” But as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said repeatedly “the status quo is not sustainable”.

In the meantime, pressures on Israel continue. “Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a US strategic imperative,” former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said.

Thought to be close to Mitchell, Indyk recently penned an article in the New York Times. “With 200,000 American troops committed to two wars in the greater Middle East and the US president leading a major international effort to block Iran's nuclear programme, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a US strategic imperative,” he wrote.

There has been speculation in the past two weeks, based on unnamed senior US officials quoted in the Washington Post, that the Obama administration might be considering a peace proposal of its own if the two sides fail to resume negotiations.

It is against this background that Mitchell’s mission begins. According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu is considering an interim agreement that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank within temporary borders as a possible way to unfreeze the stalled talks with the Palestinians.

The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials on Thursday as saying that Mr Netanyahu would offer a series of “concessions” to boost Palestinian confidence, such as easing the blockade on Gaza, releasing prisoners, freezing the building project in Ramat Shlomo for two years, and agreeing to discuss borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Palestinians also want to the mission to succeed. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, voiced support for Mitchell’s mission on Thursday, saying he believed "President Obama and Senator Mitchell must be given a chance” to break the deadlock between the two sides.

However, Erekat noted that this could only happen if the US is able to convince the Israeli government to “give peace a chance".

“We hope [Mitchell] will have the right formula for resuming proximity talks by having Israel stop settlement activities.”

All previous attempts at reviving peace talks failed on this point. But then, Netanyahu said, “There should be no preconditions to talks” with the Palestinians.

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