Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hopes rise for resumption of Middle East peace negotiations.

The Arab League have given qualified support to a US proposal for indirect talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The decision by Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday gives the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas political cover to enter "proximity" talks – in which the US would shuttle between the two sides – despite Palestinian and wider Arab scepticism over Israel's willingness to advance a genuine peace process.

The move was welcomed yesterday by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told the Knesset: "It seems that the conditions are ripening for the renewal of negotiations between us and the Palestinians."

There has been so little sign of any positive advancement in talks between the two sides that this minuscule piece of news is being greeted as a great step forward.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was "very pleased" by the decision and hoped talks would begin "soon".

A statement endorsed at the meeting of 14 Arab states – with Syria's the main dissenting voice – backed the proximity talks as a "last ditch" effort to "facilitate" the US role in seeking to broker a peace deal. But it warned that they should be limited to four months in duration and should not automatically lead to direct talks.

Mr Abbas has refused to enter direct negotiations with Mr Netanyahu without the total settlement freeze originally demanded by Washington. Mr Netanyahu eventually agreed to halt new construction in the settlements for 10 months but not to stop work on building already deemed to be under way or to apply a freeze to East Jerusalem.

The US has since been pressing an at least initially reluctant Mr Abbas to agree to the indirect talks – in which President Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to act as the mediator – as a means of breaking the deadlock.

But although Mr Abbas has also been under pressure from Egypt to enter the talks, he has made it clear he would not take sole responsibility for doing so. He is thought to have sought the Arab League's support as a precondition for yielding to the pressure to begin the "proximity" process.

Abbas now has the political cover he needs to proceed, cover which he would not have needed had only Obama stuck by his guns and insisted that Israel stop all settlement building. When Obama caved to Israeli intransigence on this subject he placed Abbas in a dreadful position.

Abbas has now, finally, found a way to dig himself out of the hole which Obama placed him in.

But the Israelis will have learned from all of this that Obama folds when they place too much pressure on him.

That doesn't bode well for what it still to come. Obama needs to get the Israelis to move, and so far he has not shown us that he has the stomach for that particular fight.

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