Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Middle East talks 'doomed to fail'

THE Obama administration's quest to restart Middle East peace talks looks increasingly doomed after the influential Arab League yesterday said there was a sense of failure around the US efforts.

Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa said "failure is in the atmosphere" following Israel's refusal to bow to calls from Washington to halt growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

His comment was made in Morocco during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sought before an Arab audience to soften her weekend praise of Israel that the Netanyahu government had made an "unprecedented" effort by agreeing to a temporary halt to new settlements.

While Israel is prepared to resume peace talks, Palestinian leaders insist they will not unless there is a complete freeze of settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had restated this to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

"We do not put conditions for resuming negotiations, but we want the talks resumed on the basis of the provisions of the road map, which stipulates the cessation of all forms of settlement activity in the Palestinian territories," Mr Erekat said.

Mrs Clinton's "unprecedented" comment in praise of Israel led to a backlash in the Arab world, which she tried to address yesterday.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama and Mrs Clinton repeatedly stated that the US wanted Israel to halt all settlement activity.

Israel refused to do this, saying such a policy would prevent "natural growth" of the settlements in which about 300,000 Jewish people live.

The US has now clearly accepted that Israel will not agree to their request and is trying to salvage the peace process by crafting a new deal under which Israel will agree to a moratorium -- most likely for nine months -- to new settlement activity apart from 3000 new housing units already approved.

Without the support of the bulk of the 22 Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, any peace agreement with Israel, which would give Israel landing rights and normalised relations with most of these countries, would be unlikely to hold.

Mrs Clinton said yesterday: "The Obama administration's position on settlements is clear, unequivocal and it has not changed. "As the President has said on many occasions, the US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

While the Israeli offer of a temporary halt to new settlements "falls far short of what we would characterise as our position or what our preference would be", she said she would support any moves towards a two-state solution.

"I will offer positive reinforcement to either of the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective reaching a two-state solution," she said.

Clearly seeking to appear to all sides to be balanced, Mrs Clinton yesterday used the same word -- unprecedented -- to praise the Palestinian Authority for improved security in the West Bank.

But her balancing act does not appear to be working: Mr Abbas is under enormous pressure from his own ranks to refuse negotiations with Israel without a freeze on settlements.

Since Mr Obama first called for a halt to building activity in

the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced Israel will proceed with 3000 new houses that had already been approved.

Both major Palestinian factions -- Mr Abbas's Fatah faction and the militant Hamas faction that runs the Gaza Strip -- are strongly opposed to any talks without a freeze on settlements.

Source: The Australian

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