US, Mideast mediators meet with low expectations

Friday, July 8, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 27

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and other Mideast mediators meet Monday in Washington, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in shambles and an upcoming U.N. confrontation over whether to admit Palestine as an independent country only likely to make the decades-old deadlock even more intractable.

Modest goals have been set by the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. Foremost is getting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to the table for direct talks after nine months of inaction. Even that seems an unlikely outcome from Monday's meeting.

The mediators "will come together and will compare notes about where we are and plot a course forward," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

Despite furious U.S. efforts, American and other officials say neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear willing to commit to new discussions based on parameters that President Barack Obama outlined in a May speech: two states based on the territorial boundaries that existed before the 1967 Mideast war, with some territory swaps to account for population shifts and security concerns.

Repeated visits to Israel and the West Bank last month by U.S. envoys have produced no tangible results. And this past week, the new U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, and White House adviser Dennis Ross pressed the chief Palestinian peace negotiator on one of the biggest points of contention, a Palestinian plan to win U.N. recognition as an independent state.

Israel and the U.S. support an eventually independent Palestine but oppose the attempt to establish one without negotiation with the Jewish state. The administration has tried to get the Palestinians to drop the idea, but negotiator Saeb Erekat said immediately after Wednesday's talks that the Palestinians were more determined than ever to win recognition when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September. Erekat said those opposing the Palestinians need to "rethink their position."

The measure probably will pass, providing the Palestinians with increased diplomatic power, even though independence still will need the U.N. Security Council's approval. The U.S. would surely veto any such resolution.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential meetings, American officials invariably offered negative assessment of the overall atmosphere surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They described it as gloomy and depressing, with one likening the recurrent problems and lack of solutions to a "Groundhog Day" scenario, referring to the movie in which the same day is repeated over and over.

And until last week, the United States wasn't even sure it made sense to meet with the other mediators, believing there was nothing new to discuss. Eventually the administration relented to European calls to get together, but little of substance is expected.

Speaking on the Voice of Palestine radio station, Erekat said Monday the Palestinians were hoping for a strong statement from the "quartet" of Mideast peacemakers.

"The quartet needs not only to state that the negotiations should based on the 1967 borders but Israeli also needs to endorse that in order for us to resume the peace talks," he said. He said that given Netanyahu's opposition to these terms, "we demand the Quartet hold Israel responsible for the collapse of the peace process."

The meeting itself is quite limited, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton planning to hold a working dinner and then issue a written statement.

Concretely, the U.S. and the Europeans want direct Israeli-Palestinian talks to resume before the Palestinians bring their independence case to the United Nations.

Nuland said events in September could prove "detrimental to our ability to get parties back to the table." She said it makes sense to "talk about the diplomacy that all of us have been having with the parties and see what we can do to work together to try to push them back to the table."

Amid scarce signs of a breakthrough, Israelis and Palestinians have been entrenched in an international battle for and against the recognition effort. The Palestinians have sent officials to lobby governments around the world for support; Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down have engaged in a determined counter-effort.

The Palestinians might be persuaded to withdraw the draft at the last minute. But with the peace process essentially frozen for the past two years, Washington has struggled to offer an alternative path and hasn't even been able to get Israel to stop settlement building in areas the Palestinians hope to include in their state.

The Israelis are still fuming over Obama's speech May 19. By endorsing language on territory that had long been a Palestinian goal as a basis for the talks, Obama upset Israel, which has maintained that all boundaries should be subject to negotiation.

Netanyahu is looking for a concession from the Palestinians in return. Diplomats say he hopes to secure an explicit statement that the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state before entering talks.

Complicating matters is a unity deal between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction, which controls the West Bank, and the militant Hamas movement in power in Gaza.

Netanyahu has rejected any talks with a Palestinian government including Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. brand a terrorist organization. Abbas has shown an apparent willingness to delay the formation of a unity government with Hamas, but once it happens it will likely jeopardize the process.