Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post
July 29, 2009 - 12:00am

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell left his Israeli interlocutors with the impression Tuesday that he would be able to extract some normalization gestures towards Israel from the Arab world within a month.

Mitchell, currently on a regional tour that has so far taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, met one-on-one for two-and-a half hours Tuesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Although no agreement was announced regarding the US demand for a settlement freeze, Israeli officials said the sides were "getting close" to "finding that common ground to enable progress."

Government sources said Mitchell would come back to the region some time in August.

The assessments in Jerusalem are that negotiations with the Palestinians would begin only after the US and Israel agreed on some kind of settlement construction freeze, and this freeze would be declared when the US had commitments for some normalization gestures from the Arab world.

Israel has made clear that any type of settlement freeze would have to be met by reciprocal gestures from the Arab world, leading to speculation that the delay in reaching a compromise on the settlements up until now has stemmed in part from difficulties Mitchell has been having in getting any Arab states to commit to any gesture toward Israel at this time.

On Monday the White House confirmed a report, which first appeared in a foreign policy blog by Laura Rozen on Sunday, that Obama had sent letters to a handful of Arab and Gulf states within the last two months seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel.

Among the countries that received these letters were Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, Obama sent a letter earlier this month to Morocco's King Muhammad VI asking him to "be a leader in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world."

Among the gestures that have been discussed are granting Israel overfly rights, the exchange of economic interest sections, and various cultural and educational exchanges.

Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Mitchell said there had been "good progress" at the meeting.

"We look forward to continuing our discussions to reach a point that we can all move forward to reach a comprehensive peace," he said.

Netanyahu said that the discussions had been "very important and productive" and that "we will continue our efforts to successfully advance toward peace between us and the Palestinians."

He said the sides "were progressing."

During his regional trip, which started Friday in the United Arab Emirates, Mitchell has said on numerous occasions that the US was trying to relaunch the diplomatic process by asking the Arab world for some normalization steps; the Palestinians to improve their security apparatus and clamp down on incitement; and Israel to freeze settlement construction and improve movement and access in the West Bank.

As if to illustrate that he was already taking at least part of Mitchell's requests to heart, Netanyahu helicoptered to the Allenby Bridge in the Jordan Valley shortly after the meeting, to see whether a recent government decision to increase the operating hours at the bridge - which links the West Bank with Jordan - was being implemented.

Netanyahu was accompanied by Vice Premier Silvan Shalom and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Katz announced that the crossing to Jordan would be open 24 hours a day for the Arab public for a trial period of two months. The operating hours for goods at the bridge have also recently been expanded.

"Our first objective is simply to increase and expand the terminal's functionality and opening hours," Netanyahu said. "I must tell you that this is part of the general policy to make the lives of the Palestinians easier, and also to alleviate the situation for the Palestinian economy. This approach stems from an understanding that the diplomatic process can be greatly assisted by the economic process."

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Wednesday with US National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who arrived Tuesday with members of his staff, including Middle East point man Dennis Ross.


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