Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to relaunch peace negotiations without any preconditions, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared on Tuesday.
There was general agreement, including on the part of the Palestinians, that the peace process has to be resumed as soon as possible with no preconditions,” the premier told reporters in New York City.
Earlier, US President Barack Obama expressed a similar sentiment, emerging from bilateral meetings with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowing to move ahead with the diplomatic process, while seeming to step back from his call for a total settlement freeze, saying that Israel now is discussing “restraining settlement activities.”
Laura Rozen in Politico:
A source close to the Palestinians told POLITICO Obama asked the Palestinian delegation to compromise on its demand for a full settlement freeze. In turn, Obama said, ths U.S. would provide the Palestinians proposed “terms of reference” for Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations, as early as next week, as well as continue to press the Israelis on settlement freeze.
While Mitchell answered press questions, the NSC’s Shapiro was seen in the hall on his cell phone briefing White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel on the meetings.
Mitchell said National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, himself and Obama had sat on the two sets of bilateral meetings. Jones, Clinton, Obama and Mitchell had sat in on the three way meeting.
The Israelis and Palestinians will send delegations to meet with him in Washington next week.
Shmuel Rosner in TNR:
In some ways, Obama repeated today some of the mistakes that have spoiled his efforts thus far. For no obvious reason–and clearly irritated by both Netanyahu and Abbas–the president had summoned the sides to this mini-summit and lectured them like rebellious children. No statement was agreed on, so he made one on his own. He demanded final status negotiations, despite the Israeli government’s belief that interim agreements and gradual progress better fit the current situation. He showed little sympathy for Abbas’ reluctance to negotiate, despite the fact that Abbas couldn’t even attend this meaningless meeting without being subjected to a barrage of criticism at home. (The best advice may have come from a Hamas spokesman I heard on Israeli radio this week, who suggested that Abbas meet with the group’s leader, Khalid Mishal, to stem the internal Palestinian conflict before even thinking about peace with Israel.)
But beneath the seemingly empty demands and banal pronouncements, a lot can be read into Obama’s short statement. He said Israelis should “restrain” settlements, not “freeze” them–a distinct change in rhetoric from the past few months. He said “permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon”–but was careful enough not to commit to a time table, as he did not long ago. Gone is Hillary Clinton’s cocky denial of any previous agreements between Israel and the United States regarding natural growth of settlements. A more subtle, humble approach carried the day. The president admitted that “it is past time to talk about starting negotiations,” which is exactly what his special envoy, George Mitchell, will be doing next week when he continues the exhaustive work of negotiating over the start of negotiations.
What is different about the current situation is that when this president makes “evenhanded” statements in which he poses a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians, his coolness to the Jewish state during his nine months in office leads one to believe that he really means it. Obama’s obsession with trying to halt the building of Jewish housing not only in Jerusalem but also in the West Bank (parts of which were accepted by the Bush administration as permanently belonging to Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza) has not made the Palestinians more amenable to peace. On the contrary, the more Washington backs away from the Israelis, the more likely Abbas (not to mention his Hamas rivals who rule Gaza and threaten his hold on the West Bank) is to stand pat and wait for the Americans to deliver more Israeli concessions to him on a silver platter. And given that leftist Jewish groups, who may well have the ear of Obama and his intimates, are calling for more pressure on Israel, supposedly for its own good, there is every reason to believe that any involvement by the president in the talks will be to Israel’s detriment.
Far from being a formula for peace, Obama’s involvement and his hectoring of Israel may set in motion a chain of events that, like the failure of Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit, may instigate a new campaign of Palestinian violence. Photos such as the one taken today may nurture the illusion that Obama is helping to nudge the Middle East on its way to peace. But the price for such heightened expectations, in the absence of any real change of heart about the need for mutual recognition of Israel on the part of the Arab and Muslim worlds, may be terrible indeed.
UPDATE: Eli Lake in Washington Times
Paul Mirengoff at Powerline
Daniel Levy at Foreign Policy