By Senussi Bsaikri
George Mitchell's last visit to the region ended without the announcement of any tangible development. This was the case with all his previous visits. On October 11th the American diplomat left the region without convincing the Israeli Prime Minister to halt the settlement building; a repeated message conveyed to the Israeli Government in the past. Tel Aviv blamed the Palestinians for not being flexible enough to accommodate the Jewish settlements and accused them of hindering an agreement to resume peace negotiations. Meanwhile, Israel still refuses even to temporarily freeze the settlements and rejects any compromise, if only to save the face of the Americans. What therefore is expected from the upcoming U.S. envoy's visit to the region in the next few days?
Mitchell's imminent visit comes after a meeting attended by delegations from both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, last week in Washington. The head of the Palestinian delegation, Saeb Erekat, said after the meeting: "we were not able to achieve any progress," stressing the widening gap between the parties. Erekat commented "the Israelis are continuing to refuse to end the settlements construction and to resume negotiations from where they left off".
Based on these facts, there is nothing new that can make this visit distinctive. The region has witnessed little development that could lead to a change in the positions of the conflicting parties. Even the spirit of optimism that prevailed after the launch of an Iranian nuclear initiative faded after they rejected a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
There is a widespread view that the ball is now in the Israeli court and the ongoing settlement building activities conducted on a grand scale constitute not only a blatant infringement of the rights of Palestinian citizens. Moreover, they also explicitly contravene Israeli laws as recently stated by an Israeli security official while speaking on the growing phenomenon of construction in the West Bank in violation of the law. He pointed out that the actions taken by the security authorities against new construction in the settlements are limited both in size and scope. Given these circumstances, Mitchell is not expected to achieve any major breakthrough in his upcoming visit, especially if he insisted on the U.S. position toward the settlements. This is the Israeli stance.
There is a consensus among the Israeli elite on the difficulty of launching a new round of peace negotiations. They hope the Palestinian politicians would drop their demands in one way or another. Haaretz newspaper quoted Israeli officials asserting that a temporary freeze on the settlements is not included on the agenda. Even if Washington sticks to its position on the settlements in order to avoid brokering a fragile agreement, Tel Aviv can not accept this as a final and lasting solution. According to reports on the priorities of Israeli policy regarding the conflict, the Israeli government has no desire for a lasting agreement with the Palestinians. To the Israelis, an interim agreement is acceptable only to ease the pressure on the Europeans and Americans. In other words, while a freeze of settlement activity is possible it is unlikely to be permanent and it would not prevent Israel from trying to circumvent American pressure. This underlines what was announced by one of the assistants to the Israeli Prime Minister after Mitchell met both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas last September. That "the Israeli government has offered to freeze settlement activities for nine months, but Mitchell wanted a freeze of a whole year."
Tel Aviv has always insisted on the exclusion of substantive issues from the negotiations; the settlements are of the most prominent of these. It is not expected that Israel would link their acceptance or rejection to peace with the Palestinians. There is ample evidence to suggest that they attach very little importance to peace.
Observers expect the Goldstone report to have a significant impact on the negotiating process, after it embarrassed the Israelis and considerably damaged their reputation before international public opinion. The report may yet result in restrictions on Israel and its officials. Ultimately, Israel's government may even be prodded to tactically change its negotiating position. This is possible, but Israel's ambition is greater. It still holds several cards that enable it to meet the new challenges. Added to that is the weakness of the official Palestinian position as exposed by the submission of the Ramallah authority to American and Israel pressure to postpone the discussion of Goldstone report in the Human Rights Council. This of course would not be the last manifestation of Palestinian weakness. The Israelis are well aware of this; hence their continued intransigence and procrastination and use of influence to determine the position of the Americans and perhaps ultimately succeed in realizing their designs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.