Mideast Summit Unlikely to Relaunch Peace Talks
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a face-to-face meeting Tuesday as a courtesy to President Barack Obama, who is playing host, but the Mideast leaders enter the summit with entrenched positions.
Abbas says he won't renew negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze, as sought by the U.S. and mandated by a U.S.-backed peace plan. Netanyahu says there's no way he will halt construction in Israeli enclaves on land the Palestinians want for their state.
Beyond the dispute over settlements, the two leaders are deadlocked on a more fundamental issue -- the agenda of future peace talks.
The Palestinians want negotiations to resume on the same terms as last year's round between Abbas and Netanyahu's more pragmatic predecessor, Ehud Olmert. In those talks, which ended in late 2008, Israel agreed to discuss all so-called core issues, including the partition of Jerusalem. Netanyahu, a hardliner who came to power in March, insists Jerusalem is not up for discussion.
The wide gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu became only more apparent in last week's mediation mission by Obama's special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who held six meetings over four days with the two leaders.
Even though Mitchell returned to Washington empty-handed, Obama summoned Abbas and Netanyahu for a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, played down the importance of the summit, saying it's part of the "hard work, day-to-day diplomacy that has to be done to seek a lasting peace" and that there were "no grand expectations."
The invitation left Abbas in a quandary. He couldn't turn down the U.S. president, but in agreeing to meet with Netanyahu, he gave the appearance of backing down from his earlier strident positions. His Islamic militant Hamas rivals, who have derided Abbas' efforts to negotiate a peace deal, promptly alleged he had "submitted to the Zionist-American will" by attending the summit.
Israeli officials didn't make it any easier for Abbas. Netanyahu's media adviser, Nir Hefetz, told Israel Army Radio that Netanyahu considers the settlers his brothers.
"You have never heard the prime minister say that he will freeze settlements. The opposite is true," Hefetz said.
Abbas' aides emphasized that in meeting with Netanyahu, the Palestinian leader is not diluting his positions on resuming negotations.
"This is not a meeting on declaring a resumption of peace talks. We will not see this," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. He said Obama was expected to make a statement at the summit, encouraging the parties to persevere.
On Monday evening, in preparation for the summit, Abbas met separately with Mitchell and a group of Arab foreign ministers, including those from Egypt and Jordan. Erekat said the Arab states "are fully involved with our position, which is their position."
Arab states have balked at a U.S. request to offer some gestures of normalization to Israel, such as overflight rights for civilian aicraft, in exchange for some Israeli flexibility on settlements.
With a relaunch of peace talks under the old format unlikely, alternatives have been floated.
Israeli President Shimon Peres reportedly proposed that talks resume with a limited agenda, and focus on issues where some progress has already been made, such as the future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.
In last year's negotiations, the two sides agreed on the idea of a land swap -- Israel would compensate the Palestinians with some of its territory for any land it wants to annex in the West Bank -- but disagreed on the amount to be exchanged.
Last month, Palestinian President Salam Fayyad presented a plan to build the institutions of a Palestinian state within two years, independent of what happens in the peace talks. Fayyad has argued that with peace efforts on hold, the Palestinians must move forward on their own.
Donor countries have funneled huge sums to the Palestinians in recent years, including nearly $3 billion for 2008 and 2009, to prop up Fayyad's government, revive the battered economy and fund development projects.
Top donor representatives were to meet in New York on Tuesday to review the aid program.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have urged Israel to do more to relax restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement, in order to sustain this year's modest growth in the West Bank. The mild upturn of the battered Palestinian economy was sparked by the removal of some Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, along with continued foreign aid and growing investor confidence, economists said.
However, Israel continues to enforce a tight blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza and hampers Palestinian exports from the West Bank with cumbersome security controls. Sustained growth is only possible if trade restrictions are lifted, international economists said.