Mitchell was here

Like graffitti on a wall.

U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell said, after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the Palestinian Presidential headquarters (the Muqata’a) in Ramallah on Friday — during an otherwise complete strike in support of Palestinian East Jerusalem called by the largest Palestinian political party (Fatah) which happens to be headed by Abu Mazen — that he has invited the Palestinian and Israeli sides to send representatives for indirect talks in Washington next week.

Mitchell said: “We invited the two sides to send their representatives to Washington in the very near future to continue our discussions”.

Then, Mitchell flew off to Cairo.

After Mitchell touched down in “the region” on Thursday night, an unnamed “senior U.S. official” told journalists in Israel that “President Barack Obama had instructed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mitchell to report to him by mid-October on progress“. Has Obama said, in other words, don’t bother me until something (positive, progress) happens? Meantime, will he just follow the situation in the newspapers, or on TV?

The efforts at distancing, and the strong message of disinterest, are clear.

Haaretz noted that “Sources in Jerusalem said a temporary freeze of construction in settlements was effectively off the agenda, and the Americans had dropped this demand. The U.S. official, however, said Mitchell would continue discussing the administration’s demand for a ‘moratorium’ on settlement construction. ‘It’s not off the table’, he said. ‘Our position on settlements has not changed’.” This report can be read in full here.

Neither has Abu Mazen’s. Another story in Haaretz said that, according to a report on Saturday in the Palestinian newspaper, Al Ayyam, “Abbas said in his meeting with Mitchell that peace talks cannot continue without a complete settlement freeze and before a framework for negotiations is established.
He also stressed Israel’s obligation according to the road map to open the PLO offices in Jerusalem. In the two hour meeting between Abbas and Mitchell, the PA President aired concerns against Israel on the subject of Jerusalem, while Mitchell emphasized the U.S. commitment to establishing an independent Palestinian state”. This report is published here.

The same story also said that “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told U.S. envoy George Mitchell that he intends on appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Council again in order to vote on the Goldstone report in the UN Security Council, a Palestinian daily reported on Saturday” — whatever that means.

Abu Mazen apparently has been convinced — maybe by the same aides who reportedly misled him ten days or so ago — that the UN Human Rights Council is ready to convene again to help him correct a “mistake” in Palestinian judgment.

It is not clear that this re-casting of Palestinian strategy will succeed.

What is the point? Is this only to be done to shore up the current Palestinian leadership?

The argument advanced by the very same Palestinian Ambassador (Ibrahim Khraishi) who is still accredited to the UN in Geneva, and who presided over the fiasco concerning the Goldstone report, now says that this is being done in response to the clashes in East Jerusalem. But this somehow rings hollow — they are two very different aspects of the current crisis.

Moreover, Palestinians — and Palestinian activists — in East Jerusalem have been quite clear for months in their public criticism, saying over and over again that they believe they have received inadequate support from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. [And, they say, the overarching Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has also been AWOL (absent without leave) in Jerusalem.]

So, this latest Palestinian strategy not only risks being held up to more scorn and derision, but it also risks wasting an enormous amount of political and diplomatic capital, after so much has already been lost.

If this Palestinian request is pursued — and if it is taken up — there is a risk that it may damage the Human Rights Council as an institution.

The Americans, for example, have been adamant that the matter should remain in the Human Rights Council, so they may not pull out all the stops to prevent a renewed debate. But, the U.S. will not like it. Nor will many others. As things stand now, the Human Rights Council has decided –with what it thought was full Palestinian backing — to take up the Goldstone report on last winter’s Israeli military operation in Gaza matter again five months from now, in March 2010. The U.S. will be sure to condemn any decision to revisit this now, and will predictably denounce the Human Rights Council for spending so much time on this one issue.

At the most, there may be a diplomatic effort to come up with some kind of compromise, a searching for words to cover the gaping gap, but it will not repair the damage already done.

At the same time, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah desperately does not want to allow Hamas any opportunity to use the affair of the Goldstone report fiasco as a weapon in the inter-Palestinian struggle. However, going back to the Human Rights Council now will not only only confirm the critique of Hamas (and many, many others) that it was gravely wrong in the first place to order the Palestinian Ambassador in Geneva to withdraw support for the resolution that he had been drafting to refer the Goldstone report to the UN General Assembly. And it puts the “mistaken” Palestinian leaders in a vulnerable position where exactly the opposite of what they want could happen.

Things will be even worse if the Human Rights Council fails to cooperate with this proposed revised Palestinian strategy — which will make the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah look even more isolated, and incompetent. How will they explain that?

Adding to all the questions, Al-Jazeera television aired an interview on Saturday with Basem Khoury, the Palestinian Authority Minister of Economy who reportedly resigned in protest of the mishandling of the vote on the Goldstone report. Khoury was still referred to, in the interview, as Minister of Economy. This was not explained. He said that he had been in Geneva to look into what had happened, he said. Khoury is not a member of the investigative committee appointed by Abbas, and his mission to Geneva was not clearly explained. He argued, in the interview, in favor of the strategy of re-introducing matter, explaining that there were nearly enough votes among members of the Human Rights Council to pass the same resolution that the Palestinian leadership had withdrawn ten days ago. Just a few votes were lacking, Khoury claimed. His interview raised more questions than it answered.

Journalists in Geneva are reporting that everyone is angry with the Palestinian maneuver. “Everyone is shouting”, one experienced Arab journalist said. “The Palestinians accepted pressure from the Americans, Europeans, and Israelis, and withdrew their resolution. Now, because their was a bad reaction among the Palestinian public, they want to reintroduce the resolution. They are asking to convene the Human Rights Council in special session. They held consultations on Friday, and the consultations will continue on Monday”. Until now, this journalist said, the U.S. seems opposed to the suggestion.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki has returned to New York to strategize in advance of the upcoming monthly UN Security Council debate on the Middle East in which, it has been agreed, states who want to air their views about the Goldstone report will have a venue, and an opportunity, for doing so. But that’s it.

Here, again, the Palestinian strategy is to also thrown in the issue of East Jerusalem — which, again, may devalue this important matter.

It is possible, of course, that circumstances may salvage the strategy. In the Old City of East Jerusalem on Saturday, according to a report by Ma’an News Agency which is based in Bethlehem, hundreds of religious-nationalist Jews carried out an “in-your-face celebration of [the Jewish holiday of] Shmini Atzeret, which falls a day after the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, seen by Palestinians in the area as a provocative act … hundreds of agitators made their way to the Palestinian neighborhood on Al-Wad Street near the entrance of the Al-Qatanin Market … On the pretext of celebration, religious Jews performing the Hakafot – dancing round in circles with the Torah – pushed Palestinian shopkeepers out of the streets and ordered them to close their doors. ‘You are dirty Arabs’, was a slogan the antagonistic group launched at Palestinians in the area, with several shopkeepers being backed into their stores or small corners of the Old City by advancing celebrators … The group of ultra-orthodox Jews was accompanied by several dozen Israeli soldiers and border guards, who watched as religious rituals were used to antagonize local residents. Palestinians who refused to back down from the ralliers and remained in the area were told by police that they must shut their stores and leave the area for two hours by order of the police department, ‘so the worshipers could perform their prayers’, one officer said … Police were also seen barring the rowdy group from the entrance area of the Al-Aqsa Mosque”. This Ma’an story noted that “Palestinians observing the group believed they were attempting to break into the Al-Aqsa Mosque”. This report can be read in full here.

The Qatanin Market is one of the main entrances designated for access of Muslim worshippers to the elevated mosque esplanade, or plateau, that Palestinians call the Haram ash-Sharif [known to Jews, however, as the Temple Mount, because they believe the Second and probably also the First Jewish Temple were located there].

Non-Muslims, including Jews, may access the Haram ash-Sharif from an Israeli-built ramp leading up from the Israeli-cleared plaza in front of the Western Wall, the only visible remnant of what is believed to have been part of the perimeter around the destroyed Jewish Temple.

There is also a problem raised again recently by the Palestinians, concerning one area of the Western Wall – the area known as Al-Buraq, near the ramp – which is also considered sacred by Muslims.

In any case, a shared but divided administration of this whole area, instituted by Israel’s then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan after Israeli forces seized the Old City of East Jerusalem in the June 1967 war, technically continues to exist to this day: the Waqf (or Trust) of appointed Muslim religious and civilian authorities administer the mosque plateau where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are situated, but Israel administers both the Western Wall below, and the cleared plaza (formerly the Maghrebi Quarter) in front of the Western Wall, where Jewish prayer and various religious and secular ceremonies are performed as well.

Muslims fear this arrangement is rapidly being eroded by religious-nationalist Jews who want to establish a site for prayer on the elevated mosque plateau.

Rabbis associated with the religious-nationalist sector of the Israeli settler movement have been pushing the boundaries of existing regulations, in defiance of the views of most mainstream Jewish religious authorities, who believe it is wrong for Jews to go up to the elevated mosque esplanade, and worse if Jews should attempt to pray there, for fear of possible profanation of the most sacred part of the destroyed Jewish Temple, whose exact location is (still) unknown.

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered one of the greatest living experts on Jewish law, has reiterated that it is halachicly forbidden [that is, by Jewish law, or halacha] for Jews to ascend the Temple Mount [n.b. known to the Palestinians as the Haram ash-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated]. Elyashiv told this to President Shimon Peres on Thursday when the latter visited him in his succa in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood … Aside from the halachic issue, said Elyashiv [who is reported to be 99 years old], it was important to consider that any provocations on the part of Jews who were determined to reach the Temple Mount could lead to needless bloodshed and further condemnation of Israel by the nations of the world. There are those in the religious camp who disagree with Elyashiv. Yehuda Glick, director of the Temple Institute, has been arrested several times this year for encouraging Jews to ascend the Temple Mount. The Temple Institute is dedicated to the construction of a Third Temple on the site ‘to serve as a royal house of prayer’.” This JPost report can be read in full here.

And, in two weeks time, Palestinian political factions — mainly Hamas and Fatah — are scheduled to convene in Cairo to sign a reconciliation document that Egypt has been drafting and negotiating for many months.

Reports today suggest, however, that Hamas may be asking for a postponement — because they do not want to sign an agreement with a leadership in Ramallah that they believe must be changed, in the wake of the fiasco concerning the withdrawal of support from Ramallah for the Goldstone report in the Human Rights Council.

Mitchell had been scheduled to see Israeli aides for a follow-up meeting on Saturday, after his earlier meeting with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Friday morning, and he had been scheduled to see Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad on Saturday as well — but those meetings did not take place, because Mitchell went to Cairo, where he met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is in charge of the Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.

It was later announced that Mitchell would be returning from Cairo to meet again with Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

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