Friday, 29 January 2010

The Kissinger Touch

The memory of Henry Kissinger's successes in Middle East diplomacy lives on in the region. Now Kissinger's diplomatic technique is re-emerging on the Middle East scene, this time with George Mitchell, the US special envoy, in the driving seat.

It was in the Middle East that Henry Kissinger pioneered what has became known as "shuttle diplomacy" – tireless journeyings between hostile parties unable or unwilling to talk direct, offering a little here, taking a little there, clearing each tiny step with the principals he was representing, and finally emerging with a clear success.

Kissinger was US Secretary of State when he started the process in November 1973, in a determined effort to bring the Yom Kippur war to a conclusion that was acceptable to both Egypt and Israel. His undoubted triumph led him subsequently to continue practising the technique in the Middle East for the remainder of the Nixon, and into the Ford administration; it resulted in the Sinai Interim Agreement, and arrangements between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.

When only nine days ago George Mitchell returned to the Middle East, intent on resuscitating the languishing – if not defunct – peace process, he already had the idea of shuttling between the major players: Israel, the PA, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. And indeed he spent his first week doing just that, intent in the first instance on getting Israel and the PA back to the negotiating table.

These efforts have apparently foundered on the insistence by PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, that as a pre-condition to talks, what he was promised by Barack Obama early in 2009 was indeed achieved – a complete cessation of settlement construction by Israel on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

However Obama has already backed away from this requirement, convinced that the political realities within Israel constrain prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from fully meeting it. Netanyahu has succeeded in putting in place a ten-month freeze on the West Bank, and in declaring his support for the two-state solution. But with Hamas already loud in their condemnation of Abbas for even flirting with the idea of negotiation, the PA president has so far held out for a total freeze on settlement building.

All the same, word is leaking out of two new ideas discussed by Abbas with George Mitchell at their last meeting.

One, reportedly put forward by Abbas, is that the Americans might represent the Palestinians in renewed negotiations until a settlement is reached. A second idea reportedly discussed by Mitchell and Abbas and currently going the rounds, is a US proposal for talks between the Palestinians and Israel at something below top level. Such negotiations might be in the form of "proximity talks", similar to the indirect negotiations that Israel held with Syria, under Turkey's mediation, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Mitchell proposes that he travel between Jerusalem and Ramallah, relaying messages to the two sides on various core issues, including borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. At a certain point, if it was deemed appropriate, direct negotiations between low-level officials would commence. If progress warranted it, at a later stage direct negotiations could be continued between the Israeli and PA leaders.

The proposal is that these proximity talks would be preceded by goodwill gestures from Israel, the main one possibly the release of hundreds of Fatah prisoners to the West Bank.

Word is that Netanyahu has accepted Mitchell's proposal, and that Abbas is still considering it.

Will something come of these ideas? We'll keep watching.

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