Saturday, 6 February 2010

Edging Forward

Well, Thursday the 4th of February came and went. Thursday (as readers of my last piece will know) was the day Mahmoud Abbas named as when he would respond to the idea of "proximity talks" put forward by US envoy George Mitchell. Anyone agog for news of his response went to bed that night disappointed.

We now learn that it was not till Friday that he held three crucial meetings in Cairo to discuss the proposal. One was with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The second was a trilateral Arab gathering involving Egyptian and Jordanian, as well as Palestinian, members. The third was a meeting he held with an American delegation.

It was during that last conversation that the PA president asked the United States to clarify its offer of "proximity talks" (that is, to mediate indirect peace talks with Israel). Washington's response, said Abbas, would be discussed within a joint Arab framework. Only then would he be prepared to announce any decision to resume the negotiations.

Originally Abbas made his agreement to restart the stalled negotiations conditional on a complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem. He discounted as inadequate the ten-month freeze on the West Bank construction announced by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. Since then he appears to have formulated an alternative proposal of his own on settlement construction – a three-month freeze in both the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was, perhaps, this idea that he tested out on the American delegation last night, in the hope that the US would put pressure on Israel to accept it.

Halting, even for three months, building projects under way in East Jerusalem may be a step that Netanyahu would find it impossible to take, and still keep his fragile coalition together. But other confidence-building measures have already been suggested by George MItchell, and accepted by Netanyahu, to help get face-to-face meetings up and running. Included among them are an easing of restrictions on access of Palestinians to Israel, and the release of a considerable number of Fatah prisoners held in Israeli jails.

So instead of shuttling back and forth, advancing meaningful talks between Israel and the PA, it looks as though, for a time at least, George Mitchell's time will be taken up by tossing to and fro various pre-conditions for reopening discussions in the first instance.

Meanwhile, yesterday brought reports of a new building development in Jerusalem that may hold within it the seeds not of discord, but of harmony.

Professor Hasson lectures on geography at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. In the early part of 2009, he led a group of Jerusalem officials, including the deputy mayor and the city engineer, on a tour of a site called Tantur, situated between Bethlehem and the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. He then astonished the group by suggesting that the site would be ideal on which to construct Jerusalem's first fully-integrated Jewish-Arab neighbourhood.

Undeterred by the "aahs" and "umms" of many exposed to the plan, the intrepid professor proceeded to bring together a group of prominent Palestinians and Israelis, and the group hired architect Eli Reches to plan the neighborhood. The plans, which feature 800 low-cost housing units and a hotel district, have now been presented to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

According to reports emanating from Jerusalem city council, Barkat hasn't ruled the project out, though he seems to think it might be better pursued at a different location. The Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East, former British prime minister Tony Blair, has expressed support for the plan.

Some of the land for the project is owned by the Al-Tantur monastery, which has given its preliminary approval. The rest is owned by Christian residents of Bethlehem. The area, initially planned as an Arab neighbourhood, has subsequently been designated for green space. According to Hasson: "The neighborhood can be a nice link between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You need to think about the future."

The future foreseen by the visionary professor is one in which Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem and Bethlehem will be good neighbours. It is a future resting on the shoulders of people like George Mitchell, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu.

No comments:

Post a comment