Amid contesting peace plans, all eyes are on US


As the Obama administration enters its last six months, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that a diplomatic initiative between Israel and the Palestinians will get under way before a new presidency begins.

Officially, there are two initiatives in the pipeline, proposed by France and Egypt, as well as a rumoured last-minute push by the Americans. However, Israeli and European diplomats are sceptical that there will be any developments before early 2017.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Paris on Saturday and there were the obligatory statements about a "way forward to support our shared goal of a two-state solution", but no details, official or off-the-record, of any concrete steps.

Mr Abbas, for his part, spoke about his support for the French initiative on convening an international conference that will attempt to set out a path to establishing a Palestinian state.

However, as France deals with the wave of Islamist terror, the fallout from Britain's referendum on the European Union and a forthcoming presidential election, which incumbent Francois Hollande is unlikely to win, the prospects of such a conference - opposed by Israel - are diminishing.

The same is true of a possible conference in Cairo, which has been proposed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Although both Israel and the PA have officially expressed their support for the Egyptian plan, it is still unclear whether the Palestinians would relinquish their demands for a total freeze on settlement building and the release of prisoners as a condition for direct talks.

The Israeli government is unlikely to accede to such demands in the twilight of a US administration, though some sources in Jerusalem believe that, if Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned that the alternative to talks in Cairo was a unilateral proclamation on the "parameters" for ending the conflict by the Obama administration, he may be prepared to accept some temporary form of settlement freeze, as he did in the early days of Mr Obama's first term.

Meanwhile, however, the concern that the administration will issue its own decree on solving the Israel-Palestine conflict before Mr Obama vacates the Oval Office has dropped away.

The assessment in Jerusalem is that the administration has more urgent "unfinished business" on its domestic and international agendas, and that the US president is resigned to the fact that he will not achieve a breakthrough on this issue.

The Israeli government also believes that Mr Obama is anxious not to spark any controversies that could upset Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

The increased willingness of the Netanyahu government to sign a memorandum of understanding on a new 10-year defence agreement with the US administration reflects this view of the White House's current positioning. One of the reasons for Israeli hesitation was the fear that once the deal was signed, Mr Obama would issue his parameters.

Another factor is the uncertainty over the next administration. Both Mrs Clinton and Donald Trump have promised to tackle the Israel-Palestine conflict early on in their presidencies. Whoever is elected, neither prospect is appealing to Mr Netanyahu, who has a long record of confrontation with the Clintons As Secretary of State, Mrs Clinton once said she was the administration's "designated shouter" at Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Trump, despite his claim that he would be "the most pro-Israel president ever" is, of course, even more worrying. He is seen as a diplomatic loose canon, who will not be held by any of the past conventions of the US-Israel relationship.

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