White House envoy to meet Israel, Palestine leaders, push for peace talks
U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will meet today with Israel leaders with hope to revive peace talks between Israel and Palestine after almost a year of deadlock.
Mitchell is expected to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The visit comes after a row broke out between Israel and the U.S. recently over home construction plans by Israel in East Jerusalem.
Both Israel and Palestine are reportedly willing to resume indirect peace negotiations, meaning at present, Mitchell will broker indirect talks by speaking to each leader individually as a middleman, until the two reach the point where they will agree to meet personally. Mitchell is scheduled to go to Ramallah in the West Bank after his Israel meeting.
Negotiations met a snag early this month when Netanyahu announced plans to construct 1,600 houses in East Jerusalem. One of the conditions set on the table for the peace talks is to halt all construction in that area. Netanyahu responded with outright rejection saying, “There will be no construction freeze in Jerusalem. There should be no preconditions to talks.”
Netanyahu pointed out that he is following a four-decade-old policy of his predecessors. However State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “We understand that the Israelis have a longstanding position, but … the status quo is not sustainable.”
East Jerusalem is the most explosive issue that divides Israel and Palestine. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war. However, their annexation of the area has never been internationally recognized.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its eternal capital. Some 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, mostly in Jewish neighborhoods surrounding the area. But one cause of friction is some 2,000 Israeli nationalists who live deep inside Arab neighborhoods. Some 250,000 Palestinians live in the Arab neighborhoods.
Benny Begin, a senior Cabinet minister, said in a Thursday meet with media and diplomats that Netanyahu would have a hard time selling even limited concessions to his government, a coalition dominated by hard-line nationalist parties.
“It is just impossible and unacceptable that people try to impress us that we should limit construction in Jerusalem,” Begin said. Netanyahu so far has curbed West Bank construction in a temporary freeze.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Netanyahu position on Jerusalem “very unfortunate.” The Palestinians have said they will not hold face-to-face talks with Netanyahu until he freezes all settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Other proposals that were given to Israel include release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, turning over more West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and possibly curbing Jewish construction in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Last week Obama assessed the situation, saying the U.S. couldn’t force its will on Israelis and Palestinians if they weren’t interested in making needed compromises in order to end their decades-old conflict.