David Harris
May 9, 2010 - 12:00am

United States special envoy George Mitchell is expected to begin his shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians from next week. This follows Sunday' s announcement by the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that the indirect talks with Israel has begun.

Mitchell met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday before leaving the Middle East for a week of consultations in Washington. He will be back in the region by the middle of next week to begin the proximity process repeatedly travelling the short distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

During the weekend that the Palestinians okayed the resumption of the peace process after an 18-month hiatus, Tzipi Livni, leader of the main Israeli opposition party Kadima, gave a series of interviews to Israeli media outlets, in which she strongly hinted that she is ready to create a new coalition with the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


When Israelis went to the polls just over a year ago, Kadima received more votes than any other party. Despite that, Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Netanyahu to try to form the government because it was obvious that it would be far easier for him to create a coalition than it would have been for Livni.

Kadima refused to join the coalition for various reasons, including Netanyahu's refusal to allow a power-sharing rotation and an objection to the financial-political demands of various small parties.

However, Livni knew full well that with the current hawkish coalition, there is only down the path of negotiations with the Palestinians that Netanyahu will be able to tread. Any major concessions would lead to the immediate breakup of the government or the collapse of the peace talks.

"Israel can be different. Israel can reach an agreement. The choice of this prime minister so far is for a coalition that won't do that, but he could always choose another direction and then we will support him and do the right thing both regarding a peace agreement and the domestic agenda," Livni told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Livni's key conditions are that Netanyahu take the peace process seriously and that he end what she sees as the political power wielded by the religious Jewish parties and the refusal of ultra-religious Jews to perform military service and enter the job market.

"It's not the first time she has made these kinds of remarks, but it is receiving additional coverage right now," said Dr. Tamir Sheafer of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It is natural that there would be more interest in what she has to say, because the proximity talks are about to begin and the issues surrounding politics, religion and education have been in the public eye over the last few weeks, Sheafer explained.

Livni's re-entry into the front pages is seen somewhat differently by Mitchell Barak, founder and CEO of KEEVOON Research Strategy and Communications, an Israeli research and political communications company.

"Her problem is she needs to say something that's going to get her in the newspaper. She's not been an effective head of the opposition," Barak told Xinhua on Sunday.


Whatever is motivating Livni right now, there is almost wall-to- wall agreement amongst analysts that if Netanyahu is serious about reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians, he needs Livni and her Kadima party in the ranks of the coalition.

Sheafer is one among many Israeli analysts who believe there is no real chance of eking out an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with the current Israeli coalition in place.

"The coalition in its current format can't do much at all," he said.

Barak agreed with that assessment, adding that there is no doubt that in the back of Netanyahu's mind is the idea that was mooted following last year's election that he should form a government comprising just three parties -- his own Likud, Kadima and the dovish Labor Party.

That would pave the way to a period of negotiations in which Netanyahu would largely not have to look over his shoulder to make sure that he had backing in his coalition for the peace process.

"If it's an issue of moving the peace process then he'll find it easier," said Barak.


However, Barak is concerned that while Netanyahu may be prepared to sacrifice on the domestic political front, as of yet there is no guarantee that he has a serious partner for negotiations on the Palestinian side.

"I don't think (the Palestinians) will move sufficiently," he said.

As it stands, the Palestinians are insisting that Israel halt all construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. These communities are across the green line in what the international community deems to be occupied territory but in areas Israel designated as part of the country's "indivisible capital."

If there cannot be agreement on this, with the movement coming from the Palestinian side, it is difficult to see Netanyahu agreeing to deal. Hence, according to Barak, the first move must come from the Palestinians.

Sheafer argued that both the Palestinians and the Israelis now need to show some good will to push forward the process.

"Analysts on the Israeli right say it depends on the Palestinians while Palestinian pundits say it depends on Israel," he said.

Both must show preparedness. The foot dragging by both parties over the last year must be put aside if agreement is to be reached, say regional analysts.

With the real talking just a week away there are already signs, publicly at least, that there could be problems at the first hurdle. The initial topic to be debated surrounds borders and security. The Palestinians say the borders should be discussed first, while Israel wants security to top the agenda.

These types of disagreements are likely to dog the talks, which is why so many Israeli and Palestinian pundits say that Netanyahu will not be able to deliver unless he radically changes his government in the next few months.


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