The U.S. State Department has just released the following statement in the name of U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell: “I’m pleased that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have accepted indirect talks. We’ve begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions. As we’ve said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible. We also again encourage the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks”.
This suggests that Mitchell is leaving — and will not participate in a second meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on Wednesday, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to pay a visit to the Muqata’a presidential compound in Ramallah, after 36 hours of talking in Israel — about Iran.
What happened today? Mitchell was in the Muqata’a in Ramallah, meeting President Abbas and Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat — who are the two people who are now charged with any negotiations, according to one informed Palestinian official. Mitchell’s aide David Hale was apparently also present. The meeting lasted approximately three hours.
UPDATE: Palestinian Television news at 9pm tonight showed an initial meeting between Mitchell and Abbas with four aides on each side — on the Palestinian side: Yasser Abed Rabbo, Saeb Erekat, Mr. X (unidentified), and Nabil Rudeineh; and on the American side: U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem Danny Rubenstein, Mr. X, Ms. X, and Mr. X.
[Haaretz carried a story that earlier reported: ” ‘Today President Abbas will hand a written response to Senator Mitchell about our acceptance of the proposal of the proximity talks’, Erekat told Reuters”. This Haaretz report is posted here.]
This journalist was told this evening that Abu Mazen gave Mitchell a “letter”: “I cannot elaborate, but it contains the terms of reference [for the negotiations] that we Palestinians believe are right”, the informed Palestinian official said. “The P.L.O. gave President Abbas a mandate. We are still waiting for the American response”.
The Palestinian official said that at this point, there are not either “proximity talks” or “negotiations” — but instead “just setting the terms of reference for the negotiations”.
“We are here to negotiate to obtain our freedom. If this turns out to be just an attempt to make a good PR [public relations] campaign for Mr. Netanyahu, then of course we are not willing to do simply that”.
This Palestinian official added that “this is the problem we have with the Americans — they are speaking about ‘relaunching’ these negotiations, while we want to ‘resume’ negotiations at the point they ended on 27 December 2008 [the day Israel launched an unprecedented three-week military operation against Hamas in Gaza]. But Israel doesn’t want to do that”.
According to this Palestinian official, maps were “shown” during the Annapolis process of negotiations in 2008. But, he said, the Israeli interlocutors “refused to hand over any maps or any papers”.
So, he said, “based on some references, we know what parts of the West Bank Israel would like to keep, but we don’t know what Israel really wants”.
He said each side made an offer during the Annapolis process. The Palestinians, he said, “gave an offer to exchange [or swap] 1.9 percent of the West Bank. We also showed this to the Americans and gave them a map”.
The Israelis, he said, indicated they “had an idea of swapping 6.5 percent of the land”.
So, he said, it should be expected that “any solution that comes out of negotiations would be between these two figures”.
However, he said, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who was asked to form the present government after Israeli elections in February 2009, may intend to ask for 20 percent or more: “He has said he wants to keep the Jordan Valley — this means that Israel intends to control our borders. He has said that he wants all of Jerusalem — we cannot give up East Jerusalem. And he has said he will keep [the West Bank Jewish settlement of] Ariel — which sits on the western aquifer that contains 85 percent of the water used in the West Bank, and we cannot play with our water sources”.
What will happen now? “I’m not 100 percent sure”, the Palestinian official said. “We Palestinians are not willing to accept another round of failed negotiations”. He noted that the situation is now “very tense”, and recalled that Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat said earlier today that this is “the last chance for a peaceful solution”. [See the Haaretz story linked above, here: “Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that
the indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians would be a last chance to keep the Middle East peace process alive. ‘The relationship has deteriorated to this stage where the U.S. is trying to save this peace process with the last attempt – by the way, mark my words – this will be the last attempt in order to see if it can be a tool to make decisions between Palestinians and Israelis’, he told Army Radio”.
Ali Waked, writing in YNet, spoke to Erekat himself after the meeting with Mitchell and reported that Erekat said “the Palestinians made it clear to Mitchell that if the Israelis increase the settlements, raids of cities and assassinations during each of his visits to the region, this casts a serious doubt over the American peace efforts.” Waked also wrote that “The remark was made as the United States released an official statement saying that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to launch indirect talks mediated by Mitchell … The Palestinians have agreed to resume the negotiations indirectly in principle, but have asked Mitchell for several clarifications and demanded that Israel stop embarrassing the Palestinian Authority with announcements on new construction plans in the West Bank. Erekat said that the settlement issue was the focus of Abbas and Mitchell’s meeting, which lasted about five hours. During the meeting, the Palestinian president expressed his resentment over the Israeli declaration on 112 new housing units slated to be built in the settlement of Beitar Illit. Defense Ministry officials say the discussed plan was approved by the Olmert government. A Palestinian source told Ynet that the Palestinians were discouraged by the inefficiency of the talks and that the American pressure on Israel has led to nothing so far. He said that the Palestinians estimate that the negotiations are only damaging the Palestinian leadership’s reliability”… This Ali Waked report in YNet is published here.
Laura Rozen wrote an assessment, Parsing the Mitchell statement, published on Politico.com here, reporting that “Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell issued a statement from Israel today which on its face seemed a quiet victory wave on achieving agreement for Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks over the weekend. But a former Israeli official reading the statement interprets it differently, to suggest they haven’t agreed on what they are going to be talking about indirectly … ‘The text indicates that he will NOT announce anything while Biden is here’, the former Israeli official interprets. ‘There will be a generic statement on the sides’s ‘willingness’ to participate in ‘indirect talks’ but nothing on terms of reference, [specific] issues etc.’, the former Israeli official interpreted”.
Haaretz later reported that “It was unclear, however, whether the indirect talks had already begun. [U.S. State Department spokesman P.J.] Crowley told reporters he thought they had. ‘I believe they have started’, Crowley said. ‘I think they are underway’. Pressed on whether he was sure the indirect talks had begun, Crowley said: ‘I am certain’.” This Haaretz report is posted here.