US could tip its hand on peace plan during West Bank visit

When George Mitchell arrives in the West Bank today, he will meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders under pressure to stand their ground.

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) shaking hands with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell ahead of a meeting at Al-Shaab Palace in Damascus on January 20, 2010. Mitchell is shuttling between Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the West Bank in his latest efforts to restart the stalled Middle East peace process. AFP PHOTO/SANA/HO == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE == *** Local Caption ***  668229-01-08.jpg *** Local Caption ***  668229-01-08.jpg
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RAMALLAH // George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, is scheduled to arrive today for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a long-awaited visit that should give some indication of the next step for US peacemaking efforts between the two sides.

The Israeli media have been ripe with rumours that Mr Mitchell, as per a Palestinian suggestion, will propose a quiet moratorium on settlement construction in East Jerusalem for three to six months without official sanction. The government of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to contemplate any kind of settlement construction freeze in the city. The suggestion, if indeed it is a serious one, has already been rejected out of hand by Israeli officials, and it is not clear what value such a "quiet" freeze would have to either side. If it went ahead and became public, it could topple Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government, for which even negotiating the future of Jerusalem would be considered anathema.

Although centre-left politicians have in the past agreed to negotiate the city's future, Israeli politicians across the political spectrum, especially on the right, continue to maintain that Jerusalem should be the "eternal, undivided capital of Israel". On the other hand, if it were truly secret, such a freeze would be of little value to Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader. Palestinians seek a complete settlement construction freeze before they are prepared to re-enter negotiations with Israel, and Mr Abbas has so far resisted growing international and Arab pressure to restart talks with Israel before such a freeze is instituted.

The move is widely popular and supported across the Palestinian political spectrum where settlement construction is seen as contradictory to any peace process. Should Mr Abbas return to negotiations without being able to trumpet a complete Israeli cessation of building in occupied territory, it would be a potentially politically fatal climb down. It will take considerable diplomatic skill from Mr Mitchell to overcome this impasse, one partly of Washington's own making. US officials last year suggested that Israel should freeze its settlement building in occupied territory as per its commitments under the Quartet's 2003 road map before peace negotiations start. When Israel dug its heels in, however, the US proved reluctant to apply any significant pressure to make the country fall into line.

There are now two ways for Washington to get a process started. Mr Mitchell could start wielding a stick and force both sides back to the table. This can be done in two ways. Either pressure Israel by threatening, for instance, to withhold loan guarantees should it fail to comply, as Mr Mitchell very guardedly suggested recently. Or pressure could be applied to the Palestinians, where Washington has considerably more leverage.

Mr Abbas, however, has precious little room for manoeuvre. The Gaza Strip is lost to Hamas and his own credibility took a serious battering with the Goldstone report furore, when the PLO apparently agreed to a delay of a debate in the United Nations over a commission of inquiry into the Gaza offensive. US pressure on Mr Abbas would probably succeed, but eventually backfire. Alternatively, Mr Mitchell might come carrying carrots large enough for both sides - but especially the Palestinians. This was widely reported to be Washington's approach, with letters of guarantee reportedly drafted to address some of the fundamental concerns of both sides. But Mr Mitchell presented no such thing to European leaders on a recent trip there and it is understood that Washington has given up on the idea for now.

Furthermore, getting the sides to the table is only the first problem, as hard as that may be. While Washington has repeatedly said that once they start, negotiations could conclude in two years, there is little grounds for such optimism. The positions of both sides are far apart and the respective leaderships could find themselves dramatically weakened domestically should they even agree to enter into negotiations in the first place.

The question Mr Mitchell might want to ask himself is why expend the effort to get the sides talking if negotiations will fail, which is what will almost certainly happen, should negotiations start now, said Yossi Alpher, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli analyst. For talks to have any chance of success, said Sami Abdel-Hadi, a Palestinian analyst based in Gaza, the international community must become "more than a broker". Unless it does so, it will continue to "consent in practice to Israel's methodical strategy of gradually erasing Palestinians from their lands".

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