Israel, US expect little from 'A-Team'
The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Herb Keinon (July 25, 2009)
Both Jerusalem and Washington are lowering expectations for any major breakthrough on the settlement construction issue, despite the upcoming visit to Israel of the administration's Middle East "A-Team".
"I don't know how much more effort it is going to take to reach common ground with the US," a senior government source said Saturday night, on the eve of the arrival of special Mideast envoy George Mitchell.
"Is everything going to come together this week? I don't think so," the official said. "It is best to always have realistic expectations, and if it takes a few more weeks, it takes a few more weeks."
Mitchell is one of four very senior US foreign policy and security figures being dispatched to Israel, raising the possibility that Washington is stepping up its pressure on the government to freeze settlement construction.
Mitchell "wants to be clear that, you know, all sides are creating the conditions, putting themselves in position so that when we begin a formal negotiating process, we've put ourselves in the best position to have a successful outcome," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a press conference Friday via a video hookup with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to announce that the US had transferred $200 million to the PA government, also made an effort to limit expectations.
Asked if she expected Mitchell to return to Washington with "something resolved," Clinton said this was "very complicated work" and there were "lots of moving parts."
Mitchell is scheduled to arrive Sunday from Syria, where he is expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad earlier in the day. He is set to meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak soon after his arrival, PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
Prior to going to Syria, Mitchell's second visit there since taking over his post in January, he went to the United Arab Emirates. From Israel, he is scheduled to go to Egypt and Bahrain, discussing the diplomatic process, and trying to push the Arab world toward making gestures to Israel which, along with some kind of settlement freeze, the US hopes will spur a relaunch of diplomatic negotiations.
Both US and Israeli officials have said recently that what is being discussed regarding a settlement freeze is that Israel would continue to complete some 2,500 housing units currently under construction in the West Bank, but not start any new projects for a specified period of time.
Sure to come up in the Mitchell talks is construction in Jerusalem, with the Netanyahu government having made clear last week that new building in east Jerusalem would not fall inside any moratorium.
In addition to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Mitchell is also expected to discuss in Jerusalem the possibility of restarting negotiations with the Syrians.
Clinton said Mitchell was "exploring deeply with the Syrians how they would respond to renewed negotiations with the Israelis. The timing on that, the simultaneity of it; that's all to be determined."
Netanyahu has repeated a number of times that he would be open to negotiations with the Syrians without any preconditions.
Mitchell's arrival will be followed on Monday by a brief visit - believed to be for only six hours - by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He is expected to focus his talks on Iran, as well as bilateral US-Israeli security issues.
And on Wednesday, US National Security Adviser Jim Jones will lead a large team of National Security Council officials, including new Middle East point man Dennis Ross, for talks with National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and his staff.
One official said it was too "simplistic" to say that Mitchell would be here to talk about the Palestinians and settlements, Gates to discuss bilateral security issues, and Jones and Ross to concentrate on Iran.
"There will obviously be overlap," one official said. "But we will not be having the same conversations with everyone."
The official dismissed speculation that the visits - all crammed into one week - were a sign of a crisis in the US-Israeli relationship, saying this was "definitely" not the case.
Clinton was also asked whether dispatching all the officials now was an effort to "ratchet down" the tension with Israel. She replied that "when we talk with the Israelis, they are conversations between friends. I mean, we have a deep and durable relationship with Israel. It has been our commitment, no matter who is in the White House and no matter who is the prime minister in Israel. So I think that the conversations that we're engaged in with our Israeli counterparts are very forthright, very clear that we have to work through a lot of the concerns that are expressed. Our goal is to ensure a peaceful and secure future for the Israeli people and future generations of Israelis."
There was a "great deal of positive communication" taking place, she said.
Amid tensions with the US over east Jerusalem construction, former Israeli ambassador to Washington Dore Gold said Friday that "Israel's sovereignty of the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem is, obviously, not up for discussion."
"Our hope is that we can lower tensions between Israel and the US created by headlines and various comments," Gold said in an interview with Israel Radio.
Gold, one of Netanyahu's top foreign policy advisers, said there were currently important joint interests between Jerusalem and Washington, particularly the Iranian threat, and stressed the importance of pursuing partnerships with Arab countries that felt threatened by the Islamic republic's nuclear aspirations.
Regarding the Gates visit, senior US defense officials said he would argue that the administration was not naive in hoping that Iran would yield to pressure to negotiate over its nuclear program, and would stress that the offer was not open-ended.
US President Barack Obama has said Iran owes a response in September to a standing offer for talks, and he has set the end of this year as an unofficial deadline to assess whether his offer of wider engagement is going anywhere.
The Jones delegation is expected to flesh out administration options for further sanctions on Iran should the nuclear overture fall flat.