Peace talks on hold as Obama admits failure

Over and out — for now: President Barack Obama boards Marine One on the White House lawn last week

Over and out — for now: President Barack Obama boards Marine One on the White House lawn last week

Senior Israeli officials have acknowledged that the chances of a resumption of high-level talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the near future are very slim.

US envoy George Mitchell, who made yet another trip to the region this week, also played down expectations.

A senior Israeli official said that “we have to face the reality that [PA President] Abu Mazen simply is not in a position where he can allow himself politically to renew the talks. He has climbed a tree which is too high. His demand from Israel that it first freezes building in east Jerusalem isn’t going to happen under this Israeli government.”

Mr Mitchell seemed to acknowledge this. When reporters asked him what was different in his current visit, he observed wryly, “this time it’s raining”.

Sources close to the talks with Mr Mitchell reported that, in an attempt to gain some kind of progress, he proposed starting with low-level talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Mr Netanyahu’s office made it clear that following his decision, three-and-a-half months ago, to partially freeze building in the West Bank settlements, no more concessions would be forthcoming until they sat down to talks. Meanwhile, Mr Abbas reiterated that the Authority is standing by its demand that Israel first cease all settlement building, including in east Jerusalem.

The American administration’s position was underlined last weekend in an interview with President Barack Obama in Time magazine. Mr Obama blamed “the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies” on both sides of the conflict for the impasse and said that Mr Abbas has “Hamas looking over his shoulder and, I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process.”

Regarding Israel, he said that it had “after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies” but that “they still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures”. He admitted that his administration “didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” He did not propose any new solutions and pledged to continue efforts.

A Likud MK said: “Bibi has gone out on a limb with the freeze decision. He won’t go any further for now, especially as it seems that Obama hasn’t got the political power to apply much pressure. Now that Obama has lost the Senate race in Massachusetts and will be focusing on the mid-term elections and his domestic policy, it doesn’t seem as if he will be quite so harsh with Israel as he was.”

Last updated: 4:40pm, January 28 2010