'Proximity talks' stall before they begin


The Israeli government is concerned that the Palestinian Authority is trying to blame it for the failure of the "proximity talks" before they have even started.

The indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were scheduled to begin on Wednesday but despite the arrival in the region of American mediator George Mitchell, the Palestinian Authority had still not agreed to attend the talks at press time.

Despite receiving authorisation from the foreign ministers of the Arab League over the weekend to enter "proximity talks" with Israel, the Palestinians were still trying to insist on a complete freeze in building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. At the beginning of the week, they told the Americans that they would agree to start the talks on Wednesday, but even as Mr Netanyahu met Mr Mitchell in what was supposed to be the beginning of the first round of the talks, they had still not announced their agreement.

Instead of joining the talks, Mr Abbas travelled to Egypt and Jordan to meet Arab leaders. Mr Mitchell will leave on the weekend and return towards the end of the month when the talks may finally begin.

It has been more than a year since Israelis and Palestinians conducted negotiations. To restart the process, the Obama administration backtracked on its demand that the Israelis announce a freeze on building in east Jerusalem. Instead, it decided to make do with discreet assurances from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the government would not authorise any new building projects while the talks were ongoing.

Mr Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, said in a meeting with Jewish journalists on Tuesday that the future of Jerusalem would be the last item on the agenda in any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, signalling an end for now in the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem. President Obama also phoned Mr Netanyahu to wish him luck in the talks.

Senior Israeli officials are concerned that the Palestinian hesitation conceals a wider strategy to try and intensify pressure on Israel by portraying it as the "culprit" for the inevitable breakdown in the negotiations. The head of the Research Unit in the IDF's Intelligence Corps, Brigadier General Yossi Beidatz, told the Knesset Foreign and Defence Affairs Committee on Tuesday that Palestinian President Abbas is "preparing the ground for a failure of the talks".

According to Brigadier Beidatz, Mr Abbas is interested in principle in reaching a diplomatic solution with Israel "but his space to manoeuvre on the core issues is limited and we are not detecting any real attempt to reach flexibility on matters of substance. He will bring the same positions to the negotiating table as he did before."

He said also that Mr Abbas did not trust the current Israeli government and believed that Mr Netanyahu was not interested in reaching peace, so his intention was "to reveal Israel's 'true face' as being opposed to peace".

"The Palestinians are now on the back foot," said one senior Israeli official. "They were convinced that they had the complete backing of the Americans and therefore went out on a limb. Now it seems as if the administration is accepting the fact that Jerusalem is a very sensitive issue for us and they are putting it aside for now. The Palestinians want to find a way to pressure us again."

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