Friday, September 18, 2009

Mitchell's Shuttle Diplomacy

There is a massive amount of attention in the Israeli media being placed on the recent report written by the commission led by Justice Goldstone which is, unfortunately, overshadowing frantic efforts by US peace envoy Mitchell to cobble together some sort of peace mini-summit or chat about restarting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Nonetheless, Mr. Mitchell seems to be working very hard and is picking up a great many frequent flier miles.

In recent days Mitchell has been in Israel, Egypt and Jordan trying to apply pressure to bring about the conditions to allow any sort of discussion on peace to take place at the UN General Assembly in New York where Netanyahu will, no doubt, be spending his time fending off diplomatic attacks against his country in the wake of the Goldstone report.

In Israel, Mitchell met with The Prime Minister

and the President Peres

which in both cases seem to have resulted in little more than nice statements about how peace is within reach and that September should not be allowed to pass without seizing the opportunity to restart talks. Nonetheless, the US and Israel are still quite far apart on the issue of peace with the US insisting on a freeze on settlement building for at least one year and Israel offering only 6 months.

Mitchell also met with Egyptian President Mubarak and his Security Advisor where the post meeting statement said little more than that the US is encouraging all parties to take responsibility for peace, but curiously, mentioned nothing about any Egyptian position on the matter or what Egypt will be doing.

His next stop was Jordan, where he met with the King who urged Israel not to obstruct peace with the building of settlements.

Mitchell's next stop will be back to Israel to meet Netanyahu again, and then to meet PA President Abbas. All this shuttling around seems like it may be working though. Signals are coming from the Palestinians that Abbas may be willing to meet with Netanyahu in New York after all as a result of US pressure. This is the only reason they would meet, however, and the PA stands by its position that no real negotiations can resume until the settlements are frozen.

This can only be good news. With the PA insistence on settlement freezes and the domestic political difficulties Netanyahu faces at such a prospect each side perpetuates a vicious cycle where talks would never begin. Settlement construction should stop, but settlement construction is not the issue upon which peace will be made or will fall. Issues like Jerusalem, the right of return and final borders are. Only negotiations will solve these issues and holding them off until the other side does something very difficult, politically makes Netanyahu look like a rejectionist for not taking a bold step and telling the settlers "no" and makes Abbas look obstinate for not agreeing to at least start talking and see where things go, or to accept part of what he's asking for as a precondition to negotiations.

This seems to be part of what Mitchell means when he says all parties need to take responsibility for peace. Israelis need to realize how hated the settlements are and act against them. Palestinians need to realize that they will need to be flexible in what they ask for. Arab states like Egypt and Jordan need to approach Palestinians as friends and tell them negotiations are in their best interests for their goals of statehood. Everyone has a job they can do, and nobodies job is easy.

A meeting of any kind in New York will be good news. It may give the leaders a taste for talking and inspire in each of them the realization that they can together, do something great for their people. It also gives them each an opportunity, a pretext of sorts to preserve their honour and back down from their stubborn positions by finding something that each can say they gained from talks and which allows them to continue. Talking, directly, at any level of formality is the right way to go. Mitchell seems to be successfully pushing in the right direction.

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