He said it a month ago when direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians finally got off the ground. He said it at Sharm el-Sheikh, where the two sides failed to breach the settlement blockade. And despite the negative clouds lingering over meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), US envoy George Mitchell repeated his optimistic script on the way to Qatar.
"Both the president and the prime minister have agreed that we will continue our discussions,” Mitchell said from Ramallah, “in an effort to move forward in this process toward what we all share as a common goal: the establishment of comprehensive peace in the Middle East. There remain obstacles. Our determination continues.”
Mitchell is leaving the West Bank without an agreement on Israeli settlements, warned by the Palestinians that direct negotiations cannot continue without one. Washington is desperate to strike a deal that both sides can live with, but the White House should be careful in its rush not to trip straight into a new obstacle.
Determined to get his way at all costs regardless of the expense to Palestinians, Netanyahu is squeezing the US as if he planned a heist from the beginning. To a point America and Israel’s relationship is irrelevant to the peace process. If Washington wants to offer new loan guarantees and military hardware, this may be one way of enticing Israel into extending its settlement “freeze.” But these bilateral agreements become counterproductive as soon as they impinge on the Palestinians, which they often do.
"In light of the American guarantee package and in light of what Israel can get from the United States for two additional months of freeze, chances are that when the time comes we won't oppose an extension of the freeze, if such a demand is presented by the prime minister," said one Likud official within Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Security guarantees reportedly include an Israeli military force on the western border of a Palestinian state, which Abbas has repeatedly rejected. He has in the past offered the compromise of NATO forces, but Israeli troops would simply trade one obstacle for another. Interestingly Netanyahu allegedly rejected this offer, perhaps already confident of such a force. His recent actions are wrecking their own havoc by confirming the perception that he dictates terms to America, who in turn dictates to the Palestinians.
Why would the PLO agree to that?
“We are making a joint effort with Senator Mitchell to continue talks with Abbas,” Netanyahu told a press conference with Mitchell. “We want to continue talks, and I want it... We froze construction in order to give Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] an opening to enter into direct negotiations without preconditions."
Netanyahu failed to mention that Israel collapsed indirect talks in May by announcing a settlement bloc during meetings with US Vice President Joe Biden, wasting the four months that Abbas is now asking for.
"Everyone knows that restrained and moderate construction in Judea and Samaria in the next year will not even affect the peace process,” Netanyahu continued. “Therefore the international community needs to call on the Palestinians to continue engaging in peace talks. It is in the interest of the Palestinians just as it is in ours.”
“Everyone knows” that Netanyahu didn’t freeze “all” construction, just “new” construction, and even then continued to build in spurts and off the grid. The basic fact is that restrained construction affects the peace process - right now.
"Unfortunately, as opposed to us,” Netanyahu concluded, “the Palestinians are just hardening their stance."
Palestinians have to laugh at the cruel comedy of this line. While the words “moderate” and “restrained” may indicate a future compromise, Netanyahu is the epitome of a hard stance. Of course he’s open to negotiations with the Palestinians - the US-mediated process operates on his terms.
"I have met all of my commitments to the Palestinians, the American administration and the international community," Netanyahu told his advisers in a closed conversation. "Now I expect the Palestinians to relax their conditions and stay in the talks."
What comes next can go one of several ways. A bilateral agreement between America and Israel offers the most promise and risk. Conversely, signs of weakness have emerged from the Palestinians. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit, who until today has demanded a settlement extension, criticized the “insistence” of a freeze in al-Hayat. The Arab League’s meeting has been postponed another two days until Saturday, four in total days, suggesting both indecision and resistance to stepping in Netanyahu’s trap.
The Prime Minister, so committed to peace, pointed his finger at Palestinians the entire day, a trend he’s likely to continue throughout next week. Netanyahu told his advisers, "The international community needs to call on the Palestinians to remain in the peace talks. It's in the Palestinians best interest just as it is in our own best interest."
But Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reaffirmed the necessity of a settlement extension after meeting with Mitchell, claiming Netanyahu has demonstrated a lack of good faith. The Palestinians must receive a trophy to show their people regardless of their decision, otherwise they'll lose the majority of their support to continue direct negotiations. One Palestinian source said that PLO leadership is looking not only to halt settlement construction, but to embed a US monitoring team to guarantee a “supervision system.”
Though they may weaken in the end, Abbas and Erekat are also likely to chant their slogan until next Saturday: “Either Israel chooses settlements or peace.” The same goes for Washington - an Israeli military force leads down the path of war.