- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Obama administration is optimistic that the Palestinian Authority will return to direct talks with Israel after nearly two years of shunning face-to-face negotiations.

The president’s special envoy for the Middle East — former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Maine Democrat — emerged Tuesday from talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with a wide smile, according to wire reports.

Mr. Mitchell said he was continuing the efforts and is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.

The Palestinians formally broke off talks with the Israelis during the Gaza war at the end of 2008, when Israel launched a military war against Hamas. At the end of his premiership, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informally offered Mr. Abbas a peace deal that included the division of Jerusalem.

When Mr. Netanyahu came into office, he was ambivalent on the urgency of negotiating a two-state solution. He later outlined his vision for two states after pressure from President Obama.

As early as next week, the State Department may issue invitations for the new talks to the Israelis and Palestinians and also Arab and European parties, according to U.S. officials.

One possible venue for the discussions is the seaside Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to one Western diplomat.

“We are continuing our efforts to reach a formula that will help us launch serious negotiations, final negotiations, with a defined time frame, a defined agenda,” said Saeb Erekat, a chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, on Tuesday, according to Reuters news agency.

In recent days, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has reached out to Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to draft a joint statement with the U.S. aimed at easing concerns from Mr. Abbas.

Palestinian negotiators have asked for such a statement from the “Mideast Quartet” to reiterate opposition to Israeli settlement construction as a reward for them to join direct talks with Mr. Netanyahu’s center-right government.

According to Western diplomats, the Quartet’s statement likely will reiterate earlier positions from the group and pledge to support the negotiation process.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday, “[W]e are consulting within the Quartet and looking to see how we can encourage the parties to begin the direct negotiations.”

Israel had threatened not to renew a 10-month settlement freeze for the West Bank that expires next month if the United States did not coax the Palestinians back to the negotiations table.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonprofit group that advocates a two-state solution in the Middle East, said Tuesday the United States is keeping up the “pressure on the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations, and at this point they are left with only one real sticking point, which is Abbas wants clear and specific terms of reference, and he doesn’t feel he has them yet.”

“The Palestinians have no choice but to get back into direct talks sooner rather than later, whether they are satisfied with the conditions or not,” Mr. Ibish added.

One Western diplomat told The Washington Times that Mr. Abbas was disappointed last month when the Arab League voted to endorse direct talks with Israel.

“He doesn’t have many options at this point but to get back to the talks,” the official said.