by Hilary Leila Krieger
Israel is offering the Palestinians gestures in place of extending the settlement moratorium in hopes of keeping them in peace negotiations once the freeze expires, Israel’s top US envoy said Friday.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are anxious to avoid being blamed for sabotaging direct talks which started just Thursday. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out if Israel doesn’t extend the moratorium — announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last November to entice Palestinians to enter negotiations – when it expires at the end of September.
“We know that President Abbas’s position can sometimes be precarious, and we are trying to find other means of incentivizing him to stay at the negotiating table,” said Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, referring to the domestic criticism Abbas has incurred for getting into direct talks, particularly with the possibility that the freeze will soon end.
Oren, who was speaking on a conference call with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, did not address what incentives were being considered, though greater Palestinian control of West Bank territory, removing additional check points and releasing Palestinian prisoners are possibilities.
Oren did say, though, that Israel was discussing the issue “very intensely” with the Palestinians and in “very close negotiations” with the Obama administration as well.
“Once we are past that hurdle I think we are very confident about moving very swiftly to reach a historic framework agreement,” he said.
Oren described Thursday’s meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as the Israeli and Palestinian teams, as “serious” and “candid” and “very constructive.”
He characterized the day as a “very successful launching of direct talks” which were “conducted in good faith and with a good sense of friendliness and openness and warmth, so I have good reason to feel optimistic.”
The Obama administration also expressed satisfaction over how the launch of negotiations went.
“People are pretty upbeat,” said one State Department official Friday, the day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over the opening of talks.
“It’s an important step,” the official said, and the atmosphere coming out of the first meetings was “positive.”
Though the American press has repeatedly pointed to the expiration of the settlement moratorium on September 26 as the first major obstacle of the talks, the initial hurdle was arguably surmounted this past week.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis and wounded two others in protest of the talks. In response, Abbas condemned the attacks and ordered arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank. Netanyahu stressed the important role of security in any deal, but affirmed his commitment to the peace process.
Their reactions meant that the momentum of the negotiation launch was not lost, and the US could continue to present a hopeful perspective.
“We welcomed that Netanyahu and Abbas condemned all forms of violence, just as we condemn all forms of violence,” the State Department official said.
Israel, too, expressed its appreciation.
“President Mahmoud Abbas came out and condemned the terror attacks and we appreciate his doing that and respect his courage in doing so,” Oren said on the conference call.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that both sides had an interest in not letting the talks be derailed by terror attacks.
“The leaders are grown-ups and they know they allow themselves to be pushed around,” he said. “It would be self-destructive from the Israeli point of view if every time rejectionists raised their heads you gave them a veto.”
Despite having overcome the week’s violence, the settlement issue still looms large. But the successful kick-off could help neutralize that impasse.
“My understanding is that this hasn’t been resolved, but they’re confident that if they create a positive environment they can get it resolved in the future,” Alterman said.
In addition to gestures the Israelis are offering the Palestinians, the sides are discussing compromise formulas where building would resume just in the settlement blocs Israel would be expected to retain in a formal peace deal and in small rather than attention-grabbing projects.
So far, however, neither side has agreed to these ideas. But there are still three weeks for a solution to be found.
When asked Friday by Channel 2 about Abbas’s threat to halt talks, Clinton explained that “part of what we are doing here is creating an atmosphere that is conducive to a final agreement that rests on tough decisions,” including resolving final status issues such as settlements.
She urged “dealing with all of them not in a piecemeal way, but in a comprehensive way, because each side is going to have to make concessions, each side is going to have to make tradeoffs.”
The Israelis have been pushing for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach, with Oren arguing Friday that the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze upfront constituted a “cherry-picking” of issues that was unacceptable to Israel.
In the interview, which was conducted jointly with Palestine TV, Clinton stressed that she was personally committed to reaching peace partly because of her involvement with her husband’s efforts when he was president in the 1990s. She described herself as “disappointed” by the failure of that process, noting that she was “the first person ever associated with an American administration who called for a Palestinian state.”
Asked whether the US was pursuing peace as a way to appease Arab countries ahead of a military strike on Iran, Clinton firmly rejected the notion.
She did, however, say that Iran’s activities affected the Israeli-Palestinian situation and were of concern to the United States.
“There are connections, but on their own, getting to a two-state solution is so much in the interests of the entire region,” she said.
In the conference call, Oren was also asked about a linkage between US policy on the peace process and Iran, following media reports suggesting that in exchange for Israeli compliance on negotiations the US would be more supportive of Jerusalem’s position on Tehran.
“They are completely separate issues for us, though we strongly feel that if Iran does acquire nuclear military capabilities it will deal a monumental blow to the peace process,” Oren said. “The United States is not saying that if you do “x” we will concede “y” in Iran. That is not at all part of the discourse here, not at all.”
In terms of aiding the peace process, Oren urged those on the line to communicate backing for Israel’s peace-making efforts to US political leaders.
“Let your feelings be known to your representatives in Congress that you support this process and you support the decisions of the Israeli government within the process,” he told them.