David Harris
China View
January 25, 2010 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 (Xinhua) -- U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is in the region once again in a bid to persuade Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Despite the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Mitchell has brought with him some interesting ideas, Israeli and Palestinian analysts said they do not hold out much hope for talks resuming any time soon.


Mitchell's latest Mideast mission got off on the wrong foot. As the veteran politician and diplomat was preparing to meet regional leaders, his boss back at home, President Barack Obama, was admitting that the conflict was a tougher nut to crack than he had anticipated.

Indeed, there was a degree of mirth amongst Palestinians and Israelis alike when it was announced that Obama was the 2009 Nobel peace laureate. Locals questioned what the president had done for peace.

There was some optimism about the new American leader. After just five months in office he made a major speech addressing the Islamic world when he visited Cairo.

That address seemed to give new impetus to the peace process, with Netanyahu for the first time saying he was prepared to have a Palestinian state along side Israel.

However since mid June, there has been an ongoing argument between the parties as to whether Netanyahu set preconditions or not and subsequently Israel has claimed that the Palestinians have set preconditions for talks.

Analysts speak of the process being stuck in the mud, with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas having climbed so high up their proverbial trees that no ladders are tall enough to bring them down.

"I think it's fair to say that for all our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be," Obama told Time in an interview last week marking the first anniversary of his entering the White House.

"Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland, this is as intractable a problem as you get," the president added.

Reuven Paz, director of the Israeli Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, said, "When he began I don't think he really understand the complexities of the conflict; that it's not just about borders but so much emotion."


Analysts tend to agree that if anyone can sort out the parties it is Senator Mitchell.

"The fact that he is coming back brings hope and maybe it also brings another opportunity," said Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science and founder of the Islamic Organization of Wasatia Palestine.

However, he adds a crucial rider. "There is always a chance of a breakthrough if there is the will among the parties to make the breakthrough," he said.

And there lies the rub. Dajani, Paz and many others in the world of academia are questioning whether the political leaders want to see particular progress at this stage. Even if they did, political realities at home make advances extremely unlikely.

Netanyahu continually says he is ready to resume negotiations, which broke off more than a year ago, without any preconditions.

However, Palestinians were incensed by his comment last week that any Palestinian state would not have a border with Jordan. The Jordan Valley would be controlled by Israel in any final- status arrangement, Netanyahu told journalistic members of the Israel Foreign Press Association.

The Palestinians insist on a complete Israeli settlement freeze before talks can begin, and criticize the Obama administration of softening its position as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations "as soon as possible and without preconditions" earlier this month.

Added to these diplomatic positions are the political realities at home.

Netanyahu's government is principally built on a coalition of hawkish parties which object to a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in the 1967 War.

Any attempt to remove settlements is likely to meet with strong political opposition, possibly leading to a collapse of what otherwise is viewed as a firm coalition.

Similarly, Abbas appears to be under intense pressure at home not to kowtow to the Americans and Israelis. Abbas' popularity in the polls is at rock bottom, much of it down to the way the American government abandoned him on the settlement issue, according to pollsters.

"Both (Netanyahu and Abbas) are remaining in the past and sticking to radical groups surrounding them; Netanyahu with his Likud (party) and his radicals and Abbas with people who are not thinking creatively," said Dajani.


It all bodes ill for the peace process, according to Dajani and Paz.

"The mire is deep and currently I don't see any movement. Indeed while I don't want to say there are signs of despair but it looks like the Americans are very disappointed," Paz said on Sunday.

Dajani believes it is now time for Washington to pick up its stick and begin forcing the players' hands.

In Israel's case, it is time for the Obama administration to impose financial sanctions -- a byword for reducing the 3-billion- U.S.-dollar annual military-aid package, he said.

At the same time he believes there are political measures the Americans could consider adopting that would hurt the Palestinians.

Paz believes the current stalemate is to some extent welcomed by Israel, the PNA and Hamas. No party is getting killed, and while there is no progress being made, all the parties have something to gain from the status quo, he said.

However, what satisfies the leaders does not always please the people and with the impasse comes the fear that violence may erupt once again. From time to time Palestinian politicians warn that an inert diplomatic process leaves Palestinians frustrated and there is no telling what may happen.

"With the peace process stalled, I don't know how the despair and people's loss of hope will affect the situation but I am not optimistic about it," Dajani said.


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