Gur Salomon
January 6, 2011 - 1:00am

Following a long hiatus in international involvement in the stalled Mideast peace process, intense diplomatic activity was launched this week in an effort to get Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met in Egypt's resort town of Sharm el- Sheikh on Thursday to explore ways to break the current diplomatic impasse.

While most details of the meeting were not disclosed, a statement issued by Netanyahu's office late Thursday said the Israeli prime minister asked Mubarak to "persuade the Palestinians to move to direct, intensive and serious negotiations in which all core issues will be raised "forthwith."

The U.S.-sponsored direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) were launched with optimism in early September, but broke down within a few weeks following Israel's refusal to extend a self-imposed 10-month moratorium on construction of West Bank settlements.


Thursday's meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh was preceded by visits of key international envoys to the peace process. As in all previous visits, they pledged to spare no efforts in bringing about reconciliation between the warring parties, emphasizing the urgent need for expedient progress.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday for closed-door discussions. In a TV interview later that day, the former British prime minister said a "huge amount of work " was taking place to revive the talks.

"We are talking about weeks, rather than months, for this process to be rehabilitated and put back on track, if we don't go back and give credibility to this process in a meaningful way, we are going to be in genuine and profound trouble," Blair warned.

On Wednesday, European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Israel for two days of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians.

The purpose of the visit is "to confirm the commitment of the European Union to the peace process, and to reiterate the need for the opening of crossings into Gaza in order to allow for its reconstruction and economic recovery," said an EU statement.

Ashton's itinerary included separate meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. She also met Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that if Europe wanted the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip lifted, it must intervene and help prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Palestinian enclave.

"If you want to bring about an end to the siege of the Strip, you have to take responsibility and set up a strong, genuine and effective force to stop weapons smuggling," Lieberman was quoted as saying in a Foreign Ministry statement issued after Wednesday's night meeting.

Jordan had also joined the newest campaign to court the Israelis and Palestinians. King Abdullah II on Thursday dispatched his Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders on the stalled talks.

In a phone conversation with Netanyahu late Wednesday, the monarch warned of the implications of the ongoing stalemate, saying it is jeopardizing Mideast security while urging the Israeli prime minister to remove "obstacles" that impede renewal of the talks, Ha'aretz daily newspaper reported.

"The monarch underlined the need for translating the commitment to peace into a practical action, by removing all obstacles that block the achievement of the two-state solution as the only way for achieving security and stability in the region," the report quoted an official royal communique issued after the call.


Notably absent from the current diplomatic frenzy is the United States. Though senior White House advisor on the Mideast Dennis Ross is expected to arrive in the region for further discussions in the coming days, the U.S. administration has reportedly grown tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Local daily Yedioth Aharonot on Wednesday quoted an unnamed European ambassador, who told the newspaper about Obama's disappointment with Netanyahu. "The American president didn't spare words when he talked about his personal frustration with Netanyahu," the ambassador described Obama's mood in meetings he held recently with European leaders.

Senior U.S. officials earlier this week told the daily Ha'aretz that they are also "furious" with Israeli Defense Minister Barak for exaggerating his ability to convince Netanyahu to progress along the peace track.

The Obama administration's main criticism of Netanyahu is said to be his stubborn refusal to reveal his stance on the core issues of the conflict: the borders of a future Palestinian state, Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and security arrangements, among others.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu announced he is willing to sit with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a closed room to discuss all core issues "until white smoke comes out."

But some Israeli political analysts have opined that these are nothing more than empty words meant to prevent the Labor party, one of Netanyahu's main coalition partners, from leaving the government.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer from the Labor party, who accompanied Netanyahu to Sharm el-Sheikh, threatened earlier this week to lead his party out of the coalition in April if the peace process isn't resumed.

Fearing that he may actually pose an existential threat to his government, Netanyahu met Ben-Eliezer on Tuesday and offered him some perks, including an invitation to join the prestigious septet (the forum of seven senior ministers) and a promise to allow more than 5,000 Palestinian laborers to work in Israel.


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