Vita Bekker
The National
April 13, 2009 - 12:00am

George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, returns to the region today for the first time since the new Israeli right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu took power in a bid to push forward the stalled peace process.

Mr Mitchell arrives as Washington finds itself increasingly at odds with Israel on the pursuit of Palestinian statehood. His visit also comes amid escalating pressure from the international community on the government of Mr Netanyahu, who became prime minister on March 31, to resume negotiations on the two-state solution for the long-simmering conflict with the Palestinians.

Mr Mitchell will be holding talks with senior officials in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and other Mideast countries during his visit, the third since he was appointed special US envoy two days after the administration of Barack Obama took office in January.

The most-watched meetings this week would probably be with Mr Netanyahu and with his controversial far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as Mr Mitchell gauges their willingness to resume negotiations on a peace pact. Mr Mitchell is set to convene with both on Thursday, following the Jewish Passover holiday.

The meetings may reflect recent tensions between Israel and the US, the country’s most powerful ally, following blunt comments made by Mr Lieberman this month that negotiations on Palestinian statehood launched at the US-hosted Annapolis summit in Nov 2007 were no longer valid. The Annapolis summit renewed talks on core issues such as final borders, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees but had been put on the back-burner in the run-up to the Israeli general election in February.

Mr Lieberman, the second-most dominant official in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition of mostly nationalist and religious parties, angered Palestinians, spurred criticism from Arab and European officials and even surprised some Israeli foreign ministry officials when he made the remarks on his first day as the country’s top diplomat. He also prompted a response from Mr Obama, who publicly repudiated Mr Lieberman’s statements while visiting Turkey last week by voicing support for the Annapolis process.

Israeli commentators have said Mr Lieberman’s comments probably reflected the stance held by Mr Netanyahu, who is making his comeback as prime minister after being ousted from the position in 1999.

Mr Netanyahu has remained silent since he has taken office regarding the two-state solution. While he is believed to be open to a sovereign state for the Palestinians with limitations, including preventing them from controlling their own airspace and border crossings or having their own army, he is not expected to pursue talks on Palestinian statehood anytime soon.

Commentators said Mr Netanyahu would have a hard time restarting such negotiations because the concept is opposed by many in his own hawkish Likud party and in most of the other parties in his ruling coalition.

Instead, he will probably attempt to push forward his plan to improve the Palestinian economy in the West Bank in ways such as reducing the hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints to ease travel and trade to prepare the ground for a future peace process.

Palestinians have been wary of Mr Netanyahu’s economic plan, fearing it would delay talks on statehood far into the future. On Saturday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Mr Netanyahu’s government must commit its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and halt settlement expansion in the Israeli-occupied West Bank if the peace process is to resume.

The two-state solution also drew the backing of foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, during a meeting last weekend in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Yesterday, the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that King Abdullah of Jordan will become the first Mideast leader to meet with Mr Obama when he travels to the US at the end of April in a bid to advance the two-state solution. The meeting will take place several weeks ahead of a planned visit in Washington by Mr Netanyahu, where he is scheduled to meet with Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

The Jordanian monarch is also expected to push the US to advance the 2002 Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative. Last weekend, the Arab ministers meeting in Amman expressed their commitment to the plan, which offered Israel recognition in exchange for the country’s withdrawal from land it occupied during the 1967 war.

Successive Israeli governments have either ignored or rejected the offer, which would obligate Israel to evacuate settlements where hundreds of thousands of Jews reside today. The government of Mr Netanyahu is even less likely to back the initiative because many of its members, including the premier, advocate the expansion of settlements.

It remains unclear whether Mr Mitchell would succeed in coaxing Mr Netanyahu into conducting peace talks with the Palestinians during their discussion this week. Their meeting would serve as a dress rehearsal ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s visit to Washington.

Israeli newspapers reported last week that Mr Obama is scheduled to visit Israel and the West Bank in June to stress his pledge to an active US role in achieving the two-state solution.


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