U.S. envoy visits Middle East amid Israel's rejection against Jerusalem building halt

08:38, April 23, 2010      

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United States special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell arrived in the region on Thursday, several days before he was originally slated to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

His visit comes on the day the Israeli media reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formally rejected a request from U.S. President Barack Obama for Israel to halt all construction work in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli move could well mean that the already frozen peace process with the Palestinians is now further from being jumpstarted than ever.

At the last time Mitchell was in the Middle East, around a month ago, he was trying to find ways to bring the parties together for indirect or proximity talks. This time around, he may have no choice other than to try to perform CPR on a process that most local experts believe is doomed to fail.


It is understood that last weekend Israel handed a letter from Netanyahu to Obama answering around a dozen questions on which the White House was seeking clarifications. While supposedly the answers on all the other issues were satisfactory, the key American demand regarding East Jerusalem was turned down by the Israeli premier.

The trouble as far as Netanyahu is concerned is that no Israeli prime minister, of any political persuasion, has ever stopped construction in what Israel sees as its indivisible capital, said Naji Shurab, a professor of political science Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

While the international community views East Jerusalem as occupied territory, and the Palestinians see it as the capital of any future state. Some 250,000 Arabs live on that side of the city.

Politically, Jerusalem is the red line that no Israeli leader has ever crossed. The vast majority of MPs in Netanyahu's hawkish coalition object to any territorial compromise in the city.

However, the Palestinians are insisting they will not come to the negotiating table if Israel continues to build in the eastern half of the city.

This has left Obama, Mitchell and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in something of a bind. Their discomfort was added to when Israel announced initial approval for a 1,600 housing unit project in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The details were made public on the day U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was in the city at the start of March.


Publication of the details of Netanyahu's letter to Obama will come as a blow to the American leader and possible to the Israeli premier too, said David Ricci, a professor of politics and American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"President Obama probably doesn't want a lot of publicity about this during an election year, so they're trying to find some way of sweeping it under the rug momentarily," Ricci said on Thursday.

"The prime minister and his colleagues in the tradition of Israeli politics would very much like to find a formulation that everyone can interpret as a 'want'," he said.

Ricci thinks something will be done soon to ease the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank. It will be something that will be very public.

The type of measure Ricci is speaking of could well be contained in Netanyahu's letter to Obama. The trouble is that any goodwill gestures will likely be overshadowed by the refusal to budge on Jerusalem.

That refusal is also troubling for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Shurab. Abbas needs room to maneuver if he is going to succeed in bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

The more Israel rejects American and Palestinian proposals, the more Palestinian hardliners will argue there is no point in talking with the Israelis. If that type of thinking sets in, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement Hamas will gain more support and see itself as the pretender to the throne.

Abbas is also reportedly currently unwell, possibly with a heart condition -- that furthers the uncertainty in the Palestinian areas, despite the denials of ill health coming from Abbas' spokesmen.


As the parties seem to be clutching at straws, one piece of good news did emerge on Thursday for those who see advancing the peace process as the best way forwards. It is reported that the spiritual leader of one of the hawkish, religious parties in Netanyahu's coalition said he will not stand in the way of a policy change on Jerusalem if push came to shove.

Ovadia Yossef is the highly respected rabbi who guides Shas, which represents Jews of Middle-Eastern origin.

However, as with most other items of good news regarding the peace process, no sooner than it was made public, it was strongly denied by the political leader of Shas, Eli Yishai.

"Yishai is the one who has to seek re-election," said Ricci, pointing out that most Shas voters are further to the right than the party's leadership.

Shurab believes that the various elements of Netanyahu's government will not stay coalesced forever and he believes a general election is only "a matter of months."

Israeli analysts say that if Netanyahu is serious about peace, eventually he will have to part ways with Shas and a couple of other hawkish parties and introduce the dovish Kadima to his coalition line-up.

However, in order to truly satisfy Obama and the Palestinians, any coalition will have to cede parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. On the evidence made public today, it may be that, for Netanyahu, that would be just once concession too far.



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