Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post
July 28, 2009 - 12:00am

Recent talks with US envoy George Mitchell have left Israeli officials with the impression that - contrary to expectations in some circles - President Barack Obama is not going to unfurl his own regional peace plan.

Rather, according to these officials, the administration is aiming to create a positive dynamic that will lead to the relaunching of a Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic process, but this time with more regional players on board.

Ever since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Obama in Washington in May, there have been persistent reports that Obama would give a speech in which he would outline his vision of a peace agreement, much in the way that president Bill Clinton did in 2001, just before leaving office.

There has even been speculation that the purpose of Mitchell's roaming from capital to capital in the region was to listen to the different points of view, before the US would put it altogether and come up with a "ruling" of its own.

But, according to the officials, the sense in Jerusalem now is that Washington realizes that it is not constructive to just place a plan on the table, without putting all the different pieces together to enable it to be accepted.

Mitchell on Monday painted in broad strokes what he was trying to do by saying before his meeting with President Shimon Peres that the Palestinians had to improve their security forces, stop incitement and "refrain from any words or deeds that may make it more difficult to move quickly toward successful negotiations."

He also said the Arab states had to take "meaningful" steps toward normalizing ties with Israel and Israel had to improve Palestinian freedom of access in order to strengthen the West Bank economy, and tackle "difficult issues like settlements and outposts."

Mitchell's trip to the region - he has so far visited the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Israel and Egypt, and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - is aimed at getting the sides to fulfill their part of the equation he spelled out, Israeli officials say.

After meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on Monday, Mitchell told reporters that the comprehensive peace that the Obama administration was seeking would include peace between Israel, and Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, as well as a full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors.

"We're not asking anyone to achieve full normalization at this time, we recognize that will come further down the road in this process," he said. At the same time he said the US wanted to see "meaningful steps by individual countries."

Israeli sources said that in recent weeks there has been a sense that the US has toned down its pressure on Israel, as it came to the conclusion that the Arab world - or at least Saudi Arabia - was not going to make the types of gestures that Obama had hoped to see.

According to Israeli sources, the US - though initially disappointed by the Arab position - has redoubled its efforts.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had made gestures from the Arab world a quid pro quo for any type of construction freeze in the settlements and - according to some reports - for removing settlement outposts, met Mitchell when he arrived on Sunday.

Israeli sources said that progress has been made regarding the settlement issue, and that there was now a willingness on both sides to reach some kind of understanding. There is much speculation that the understandings will revolve around an Israeli agreement not to start any new construction in the settlements for a set period of time, in return for being allowed to finish the some 2,500 units currently under construction.

Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday. While Israeli officials said that it was unlikely the settlement issue would be settled on this visit, Washington - according to the sources - would like to resolve it before the August 4 Fatah convention, in order to give Abbas some "achievement" to point to at that parley.


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