Thursday, 25 February 2010

Moscow and Tripoli – the scene shifts

The follow-up to the events described in my last piece ("A Holy Row") was a good slap on Israel's wrist from Washington. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday that the US administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.

And of course he may be right, though the two sides have not exactly been rushing back to the table in any case.

Strong rumours were circulating in the world's media last week that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had virtually accepted the concept of "proximity talks", and might be sitting down with the Israeli delegation any time now – but these may well have been wishful thinking on someone's part, perhaps someone in the State Department. Certainly Abbas himself, as well as the PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, were quick to deny that any such decision had been taken. In fact, Abbas had always indicated that he would seek cover from Arab ministers before taking any positive steps towards renewed peace talks. Now there seems to be a notion that he will postpone any action till the projected Arab League summit scheduled to take place in Libya on 27 March.

Meanwhile, one can but ask whether Sunday's announcement by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of the addition of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb to Israel's projected "heritage trail" was not also a subtle way of putting a brake on the impetus towards revived negotiations. If it did that, even if it was not his prime objective, the move would undoubtedly have placated some of the more right-wing opinion in his fragile coalition – opinion that was certainly pressing for the addition of the two holy sites in any case.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, almost seems to have acknowledged that an undesirable delay in the process is inevitable. She certainly told a congressional committee yesterday that groundwork is being laid to restart the talks with the help of US special envoy George Mitchell, and that she hopes peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians will resume shortly – but she did not say when.

Meanwhile it is reported that the US and Russia are trying to convene a meeting of the "Quartet" – the USA, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – in Moscow. It's said that a tentative date of 19 March has been discussed but is not yet confirmed. The meeting would bring together Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – and, of course, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet's special representative in the Middle East.

So if the Quartet meets on 19 March and the Arab League on the 27th, and decisions on action are dependent on the outcome of both meetings, any hope of resuming Israel-Palestinian negotiations seems to have receded to April at the very least.

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