US plays down hopes of ending deadlock on Middle East

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The Independent Online

Any lingering hopes that today's US-Israeli-Palestinian summit convened by President Barack Obama will have a positive outcome on the Middle East peace process appear to rest entirely on whether the White House has an unexpected tactic up its sleeve.

Otherwise the meeting – called at the weekend by Mr Obama despite the failure of his envoy to establish agreed conditions for serious political negotiations to begin – may be doomed to be little more than the "photo-opportunity" one prominent Israeli commentator predicted yesterday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's determination to resist US and Palestinian demands for a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank appeared if anything to have hardened yesterday when his spokesman declared: "You have never heard the prime minister say that he will freeze settlements. The opposite is true."

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has bowed to intense American pressure to attend the summit after both leaders meet the US President separately but has not withdrawn his public refusal to enter negotiations with Israel unless a freeze is called.

The White House was yesterday lowering expectations of today's three-way meeting. "We're looking to continue to build on progress," Mr Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters. "We have no grand expectations out of one meeting."

In his shuttle diplomacy last week, the US envoy George Mitchell failed to persuade Mr Abbas to endorse the formula offered by Mr Netanyahu in which Israel would limit construction in occupied territory to 2,500 Jewish houses on which work is deemed to have begun, as well as another 450 authorised while the negotiations were still going on. Mr Mitchell also failed in his efforts to persuade Israel to improve the formula, which Palestinian negotiators say will in effect maintain current rates of settlement building.

Palestinian negotiators are also seriously concerned at the apparent failure of Mr Mitchell to persuade Mr Netanyahu to reverse his adamant refusal to halt construction in Arab East Jerusalem, over which Israel claims sovereignty but which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Some European allies have been pressing the US, in the absence of Israeli agreement to a settlement freeze robust enough to satisfy moderate Palestinian leaders, to announce a timetable for US-chaired negotiations on all the "core" two-state issues – Jerusalem, borders and refugees – or at least say explicitly that it envisages a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

Such a move – which it is far from clear the US is ready to make – would put equal onus on Israel and the Palestinians to resume serious talks. While the Israeli Prime Minister has said that he is ready for immediate negotiations with Mr Abbas, he would be under strong pressure from his right-wing coalition to refuse any talks on the future of Jerusalem.

The US had also been hoping to persuade Arab states who do not recognise Israel to begin a gradual process of "normalisation" with Israel – for example by allowing diplomatic representations and Israeli overflights – but Saudi Arabia in particular has been resistant without a clear settlement freeze and productive negotiations.

On his way to New York, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, yesterday welcomed President Obama's "intervention" in calling the summit and hope it would "bring Israel back to the negotiating table based on the implementation of a comprehensive settlement freeze, and convince Israel to accept the resumption of permanent status negotiations on all core issues without exception".

Mr Erekat's statement said that a freeze on settlement building – including in East Jerusalem – was not "a Palestinian precondition" but an "Israeli obligation" under the 2003 internationally-backed Road Map.

Meanwhile, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told The New York Times that he feared the Palestinians were going to miss "a huge opportunity" by setting conditions for negotiations to resume. He added: "There is a president who says determinedly, 'I am going to put my political capital into making sure there is an independent Palestinian state and solve all the core issues in two years."

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