Kuwait News Agency (kuna)
July 15, 2008 - 3:12pm

Palestinian negotiators arrive to Washington on Tuesday to hold talks with US officials in what could be a last bid to overcome the stalemate in a peace process that seems out of reach before the end of the year.

"The meeting in Washington is to talk to the Americans about what can be achieved before President George W. Bush leaves office," said the Director of Middle East Democracy at Brookings Tamara Cofman Wittes in an interview with KUNA.

"It is impossible and too complicated to get a final status agreement before next January," she added.

Chief Palestinian negotiators Ahmad Qurei and Saeb Ereikat are to spend three days in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, White House's National Security staff, congressional leaders, and the Special Envoy for Middle East Security General James Jones.

"There is a sort of strange gap between formal negotiations and what is actually happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the ground," observed Cofman Wittes.

Eight months after convening the Annapolis conference, both sides are still not moving forward on confidence-building gestures. Particular goals are for Israel to scale down over 500 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and halt settlement activities, and for the Palestinian Authority to enhance security measures and restore control of Gaza after the security takeover of Hamas in June 2007.

Cofman Wittes did not see a tangible progress that could infer a breakthrough in negotiation, but did not brush aside the possibility of "undeclared encouraging signs".

"It could be that they reached the point where the US sees enough going on that there is a reason to try to bridge the gap and get involved in the details," she added.

This visit is supposed to be the first of three rounds of negotiations that will take place between New York and Washington in the coming two months, but there is no confirmation yet of trilateral meetings in the near future; both Palestinians and Israelis are to meet separately with US officials.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the key figure in approving the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel last month, is scheduled to meet with Rice tomorrow, but the main focus of his trip is the Iranian nuclear file.

Cofman Wittes argued that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, not the United States, was "putting breaks" on a dialogue between Fateh and Hamas before changing his position recently.

"Everybody understands that Gaza is a problem and the peace process cannot move without some accommodation between Fateh and Hamas over Gaza," she added.

International Quartet envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair is expected to visit Gaza strip this week, protected by Hamas security officials, to meet with local traders and assess the infrastructure.

However, this visit was cancelled before the official entered the strip through Erez Crossing earlier Tuesday morning, and it was reported a new timing would be announced in a press conference by an UNRWA official.

"It is almost impossible to implement humanitarian and development projects in a situation where the Palestinian Authority has no authority and no access, " said Cofman Wittes.

"If Abbas by softening his position towards Hamas can help create a situation where goods can get into Gaza, maybe the borders can be reopened, and Palestinian Authority officials can go back to the Rafah borders," she added.

Meanwhile, indirect talks between Israel and Hamas through the Egyptian channel continue for the exchange of Palestinian prisoners in return for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit held by Hamas since June 2006.

"This would put additional pressure on Abbas to show he can also get prisoners released," said Wittes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to positively respond to Abbas' request and release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners on the sideline of his visit to Paris to take part in the Mediterranean union summit.

Over 10,000 Palestinians are detained in Israeli prisons, including 317 children, 143 women, and elected officials in the Legislative Council.

"The number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is a huge political issue for Palestinians; every village and every family has somebody detained," said Wittes.

"For Hamas, a major prisoners release is a political victory, and Abbas is also eager for that kind of political victory," she concluded.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017