- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.S. Mideast envoy returned to the region, and Israel’s prime minister huddled with Egypt’s president Monday in anticipation of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in more than a year.

The indirect, U.S.-mediated talks mark the first significant step forward in the Obama administration’s attempts to break a stubborn deadlock in Mideast peacemaking.

But the two sides remain far apart, with Israelis insisting on security guarantees and the Palestinians questioning whether hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could ever concede what is required for a deal.

White House envoy George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator who brokered Northern Ireland’s peace accord, has been trying to relaunch peace talks since President Obama took office in January 2009.

But his efforts have hit repeated stumbling blocks, including an Israeli decision in March to build 1,600 homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians. The announcement prompted the Palestinians to call off the start of the indirect negotiations and strained Israel’s relations with the United States.

After weeks of prodding by Mr. Mitchell, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last week to start their indirect talks. Mr. Mitchell plans to meet with the sides separately this week to get the negotiations under way. He arrived in Israel late Monday without commenting publicly.

Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, flew to Egypt on Monday to brief President Hosni Mubarak on the peace effort.

Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, often serves as a bridge between Israel and the broader Arab world. Over the weekend, the 22-member Arab League endorsed the Palestinians’ decision to resume indirect talks with Israel, giving the Palestinians political cover to proceed with talks that have been greeted with widespread skepticism by the public.

The Palestinians want to an establish a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians have said they are eager for a deal and even would accept a U.S.-dictated solution.

Mr. Netanyahu last year reluctantly endorsed the idea of Palestinian independence, but he has tacked on conditions the Palestinians deem unacceptable, such as retaining an Israeli presence in the West Bank and keeping east Jerusalem.

Israeli officials said Mr. Netanyahu will oversee the initial negotiations with Mr. Mitchell and will focus his efforts on security issues.

Senior Israeli officials said Mr. Netanyahu, who is reluctant to make concessions to the Palestinians, agreed to the talks in part because of international pressure on Israel. They said Mr. Netanyahu will seek security guarantees not only from the Palestinians, but from the international community as well. Mr. Netanyahu is concerned about Iran’s rising influence in the area and the possibility that Hamas militants, who now control Gaza, could overtake the West Bank as well.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal high-level deliberations.

Mr. Netanyahu has argued that the issues at the heart of the conflict — such as final borders, refugees and control of Jerusalem — can be resolved only through direct negotiations. He would like to move to direct talks within weeks, the officials said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians have been assured by the United States that all core issues will be discussed in the indirect talks. He said it would become apparent very quickly whether Mr. Netanyahu is serious about making peace or stalling.

“If they continue their current trend, it will be very visible for us,” he said.

The Palestinians refuse to hold direct talks with Mr. Netanyahu unless he freezes all Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has offered a slowdown in the West Bank and what appears to be an undeclared freeze in east Jerusalem as well.

Even before talks restart, some Israeli hard-liners were predicting their demise.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon accused the Palestinian government of inciting an “unprecedented wave” of anti-Israel fervor by pushing boycotts of Israeli products produced in West Bank settlements and “glorifying” Palestinian militants in the naming of public buildings and squares.

He said the anti-Israeli rhetoric could bring down peace talks and said silencing it would be high on Israel’s list of demands.

The Palestinians say that the boycott is meant to express their opposition to Israeli settlements and that Israel also has named roads and buildings after former military commanders the Palestinians consider to be killers.

Associated Press writer Karoun Demirjian in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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