Three-way meeting at UN in New York not going down well in the region

U.S. President Obama went public with his plea/request/invitation for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to meet him at the UN in New York on Tuesday , on the margins of the annual high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The invitation came after Obama’s Special Envoy George Mitchell’s extended efforts in the region this week to get the Israeli government to agree to a settlement freeze so the Palestinian leadership could agree to resume negotiations they broke off during the IDF military operation in Gaza this past winter (Operation Cast Lead). Mitchell even went back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah four times on Friday, during terrible traffic on the last Friday in Ramadan, and as the Palestinians prepared for the big Eid holiday, and Israelis prepared for the Rosh Hashonah New Year’s weekend (which of course required a TOTAL CLOSURE of the West Bank until midnight on Tuesday).

Anyone who wants to recap that run-around can read a summary account in Haaretz here. This article also reports that “A senior source at the Prime Minister’s Bureau said Sunday that the Palestinians were the ones who ‘folded’ after they refused a meeting with Netanyahu. ‘They made militant statements but in the end they will come’, the source said. Senior officials at the U.S. administration have also stressed that there has been no major breakthrough and that the differences between the sides have remained unchanged since U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, departed the area on Friday afternoon. U.S. officials said that they expected no declaration of the negotiations’ resumption at the end of the meeting, and the talks on this issue would continue in the coming weeks. The aim is to resume the negotiations by the first half of October”.

Of course, the Palestinians could not be so rude as to refuse Obama’s invitation — despite earlier remarks about their refusing to cave in. It’s no big deal, suggested Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat, who was recently elected to the Fatah Central Committee, and to the PLO Executive Committee — it’s just a meeting, it doesn’t mean that negotiations will resume.

But, they probably will.

Just hours earlier, Erekat said there was “zero chance” of a meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA in NY …]

Now, it will be up to Obama to squeeze the Israeli leadership for a big concession.

The New York Times reported today that Israel’s former Prime Minister, and now Defense Minister, Ehud Barak (who will probably also attend the meeting in NY, said in a telephone interview: ““I fear the Palestinians are going to miss a huge opportunity … There is a president who says determinedly, ‘I am going to put my political capital into making sure there is an independent Palestinian state and solve all the core issues in two years.’ If we bear in mind Israel’s security needs and the demand that a final agreement means an end to the conflict, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.”

The NYTimes story added that “Israeli officials acknowledge their unwillingness to stop all Israeli building in the West Bank, but said this was because the lives of Israeli settlers must go on until a deal is reached [emphasis added here]. ‘I am not willing to dry out, to turn my back on a quarter of a million Israeli citizens’, Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 on Thursday. ‘It is clear that the fate of the settlements and of the borders will have to be decided. But they can’t be decided until the talks start’. When asked if he would be willing to remove settlements as part of the solution, Mr. Netanyahu said that he saw no reason to volunteer concessions before the talks”. This NYTimes story can be read in full here. BEFORE the talks, Netanyahu said… (1) as if there have not been talks going on since late November 2007, and (2) implying that once Palestinians agree to resume talks, the Israeli government is prepared to make major concessions.

In the same NYTimes article, Sa’eb Erekat is reported to have said that Palestinians did not want Israeli kindergartens [even if they would eventually be turned over to the Palestinians in the event of a deal], they wanted their land.

Akiva Eldar wrote a cautionary piece that was published today in Haaretz, in which he said: “The all-too-long history of the ‘peace process’ has taught us that a summit can be a desirable goal, but also a place of unsurpassable danger. When participants come with insufficient preparation, and without a safety net, the depth of the fall can be as high as the summit itself. There is a great difference between a fruitless round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah on the part of a presidential envoy and a failed summit called by U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the 16 years since the Oslo Accords were signed at the White House, Israelis and Palestinians have witnessed countless summits, peace conferences, negotiations and understandings and even innumerable agreements. All ended in disappointment or, at worst, in yet another wave of violence. It can be hoped that the Americans have learned, from the bitter experience of Camp David in 2000, that a tripartite summit is not just another media event, like a speech in Cairo or a New Year’s greeting. A meeting of the U.S. president with the leaders of the parties is the Judgment Day weapon of the diplomatic world. The term peace process has already been placed in quotation marks and absorbed heavy doses of cynicism. Who remembers what Obama said in Cairo this spring, or the declarations made in Annapolis in November 2007? Both parties have since lost their remaining faith in a negotiated solution. If Tuesday’s summit, too, ends with nothing but a handshake for the cameras, what will they have to look forward to? … Abbas has bet his credibility on the Americans and their ability to influence their Israeli friends. If Obama sends him away empty-handed it will play into the hands of Abbas’ big rivals in Gaza and Damascus. Hamas will not miss such an opportunity to present the summit as yet more proof of its claim, since the Oslo Accords, that support for Fatah is flimsy. How much longer will Abbas’ police officers put up with being painted as collaborators with the occupation? The summit’s success will not be measured by the extent of the settlement freeze Obama obtains from Netanyahu. Even the Palestinians recognize that a few hundred more homes in Ma’aleh Adumim or Pisgat Ze’ev will not make a difference in a long-term solution of the conflict. For the summit to avoid becoming another forgettable footnote in the history of the peace process, the participants must return home with a full translation of the slogans voiced in Cairo by Obama into the language of action. Obama doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. All he needs is to update the road map timetable, which long ago became UN Security Council Resolution 1515. The road map says that in 2005 the parties will reach a permanent solution that will end the occupation that began in 1967. It also says the agreement will include a negotiated settlement on the status of Jerusalem and an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue. Two Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, negotiated with the Palestinians on all these issues and even reached some understandings. As President Shimon Peres (who is now pushing the two sides to deal, as a first stage, only with the issue of borders) says, you can make an omelet with eggs but no one can make eggs out of an omelet. In a Rosh Hashanah Eve interview Netanyahu called on Abbas to decide whether he is Yasser Arafat or Anwar Sadat. Obama may ask Netanyahu on Tuesday to decide whether he is Menachem Begin, who gave back the entire Sinai (without asking in exchange that Israel be recognized as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”) or Yitzhak Shamir, who opposed the peace agreement with Egypt”. The Akiva Eldar article can be read in full here .

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