RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – The U.S. envoy to the Middle East held talks Friday with the Western-backed Palestinian leader as hopes were fading that Washington could restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations anytime soon.
The meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and envoy George Mitchell was overshadowed by President Barack Obama’s comments published in a Time Magazine interview the previous day, indicating he may have overestimated his ability to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Israel “found it very hard to move with any bold gestures,” while Abbas had “Hamas looking over his shoulder,” Obama had said, referring to the Palestinian leader’s militant rivals who rule the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has said repeatedly he will not resume negotiations without an internationally mandated Israeli settlement freeze. The Obama administration initially demanded such a freeze as well, but relented when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted. Netanyahu instead agreed to a construction slowdown in some of the areas claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Netanyahu says he is willing to resume talks immediately, but has also staked out tougher positions than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, with whom Abbas negotiated in 2008. Netanyahu says he will not relinquish any part of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians seek the eastern sector as their future capital.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu added a new complication by saying he would seek an Israeli presence in a prospective Palestinian state in order to prevent the smuggling of missiles and other weapons.
Abbas aides have said resuming talks is pointless as long as Netanyahu refuses to pick up where Abbas and Olmert left off. They also fear that Washington’s failure to get Israel to halt settlement construction bodes ill for its ability as a broker once far tougher issues such as a partition of Jerusalem are on the table.
Abbas also fears his personal standing, under constant assault from Hamas, will erode further if he returns to talks while settlements keep expanding.
Nearly half a million Israelis have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war. With settlements chipping away at Palestinian-claimed territory, setting up a Palestinian state would be increasingly difficult.
Mitchell started his latest mission Thursday, meeting with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. Despite the gloom, the envoy said Obama still hopes to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel in peace. “We will pursue (that) until we achieve that objective,” Mitchell said Thursday.
Mitchell is expected to leave this weekend, and it’s unclear what Obama’s next move could be. In his interview with Time, Obama seemed pessimistic. “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” Obama said.