U.S. envoy George Mitchell resumed his push for direct Middle East peace talks on Tuesday with signs coming from Palestinian leaders that they might bow to pressure and agree to meet the Israelis face-to-face. Mitchell was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to address questions from both before returning home on Wednesday. The stalled peace process resumed in May after an 18-month hiatus, but only at the level of indirect “proximity talks”, in which Mitchell acts as a shuttling, third-party diplomat. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants direct talks to resume by September before a partial moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank is set to expire, with possibly dire consequences for the process.
Abbas hinted on Monday that he might soon bow to international pressure, end the impasse and resume direct negotiations for the first time in almost two years. Netanyahu has said he is ready to begin immediately. “Until now, we did not agree,” Abbas said. “We may face other pressures that we cannot endure. If that happens, I will study this thing with the leadership … and take the appropriate decision,” he told reporters at his office.
Abbas insists that direct talks tackle all territory Israel has occupied since capturing them in the 1967 Middle East war. He includes Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state and the Jordan Valley, where Israel might insist on continuing to secure the Jordan border with its own forces. Abbas also wants a total halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, and an agreed timeline for the talks. He said that if the so-called Quartet of the Middle East mediators — the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — called on Israel to halt settlement activities and reach an agreement in 24 months, then “I will immediately go to direct talks because it includes everything I am asking for”. Netanyahu says Abbas is wasting time, and insists the Palestinians can bring all of these issues to the table.
A major, if unspoken, obstacle to a Middle East peace treaty as foreseen in the interim Oslo Accords of 1993 is the fact that the Palestinians have been split into two populations since 2006. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority administer the West Bank and its 2.5 million people. But the Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million Palestinians are under the control of the Islamist Hamas movement which wants no part in peace talks with Israel. Since May, Mitchell has held five rounds of indirect talks between the two leaders. A U.S. State Department spokesman on Monday said that what the envoy needs to accomplish on this trip “can be done with rather quick meetings with both.”