Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in The Jerusalem Post - October 15, 2009 - 12:00am

Two top Israeli officials in town for talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell extended their stay Thursday to continue discussions on a potential settlement freeze and the restarting of peace negotiations.

Yitzhak Molcho, an envoy from the Prime Minister's Office, and Defense Ministry chief of staff Michael Herzog spoke with Mitchell Wednesday and Thursday but decided to remain in town Friday - an indication that the sides have determined further conversations could be productive following several rounds of US-Israeli talks that failed to yield results.

The unscheduled extension of discussions comes amid concern in Jerusalem that a failure to find a formula for relaunching Israeli-Palestinian talks will lead the US to blame the parties for the breakdown, to the detriment of Israel.

Last month, when a three-way meeting between US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ended in a deadlock, a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post that Obama had communicated his "impatience" to Netanyahu over the lack of movement.

"It's enough talking about talking, and it's time to get started as soon as possible," the official told the Post.

Netanyahu, for his part, has been unwilling to meet the American demands of a complete settlement freeze, including for natural growth, though the US has recently exhibited some flexibility that Israeli officials hope will allow for a compromise proposal of a temporary freeze enabling some construction projects to be completed.

The Palestinians, however, have recently reiterated their insistence on a total freeze as a weakened Abbas has tried to shore up his standing among the Palestinian public. He has also called for negotiations on final-status issues, including Jerusalem, and in a tight time frame that is opposed by Israel.

The US position seems to be closer to that of the Palestinians, with Obama having called for final-status talks on a swift timeline.

But Palestinians are also feeling US pressure, as several rounds of talks haven't resulted in an agreement.

"The administration is frustrated with the Palestinians," according to Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator, who added, "It's going to be hard for them to step down from their stated position, which is a settlement freeze and starting the negotiations from where they ended."

Omari, now with the American Task Force on Palestine, assessed that given Abbas's weak position - facing public ire for perceived concessions to the US and Israel - "anything short of a settlement freeze would require him to shift his stated position and pay a political price."

Still, he expected that Abbas wouldn't want to completely jeopardize his relationship with the US, and so would cut some sort of deal at some point, but the process to get talks started might get pushed back as a result.

"I don't see it collapsing any time soon. There's too much invested in [talks starting], and all the parties will loose in the collapse," Omari said, predicting instead that it would just be stretched out.

Following Mitchell's talks this week with Molcho and Herzog, a Palestinian delegation led by chief PA negotiator Saeb Erakat is due in Washington for separate conversations with Mitchell on Tuesday.

That means that a report Obama had requested from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the situation wouldn't come out until at least after that concludes, despite earlier expectations that she would deliver it on Friday.

Israeli officials have also said Clinton would be visiting Jerusalem at the end of October or the beginning of November, though the US has not yet confirmed the trip, which could hinge on whether sufficient progress is made on the framework for relaunching peace negotiations.


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