Friday, 18 June 2010

Proximity talks survive

"What a marvellous piece of luck," one diplomatic official is reported to have said, "that the Israel-Palestinian negotiations started off as indirect talks. If they'd been face-to-face, they'd have been over straight after the Gaza flotilla incident."

He is not wrong. It is difficult to envisage Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, carrying on as if nothing had happened, given the cacophany of condemnation that Israel faced after the storming of the Mavi Marmara, and the subsequent death of nine activists.

But, stormy though the diplomatic weather has undoubtedly been over the past fortnight, George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy, arrived back in the region on Wednesday night, ready, willing and eager to start the fourth round of proximity talks. He, at least, seemed prepared to carry on where he had left off. His intention, he announced, was to "pursue the discussions now under way, which we hope will lead to direct negotiation, which in turn will lead to a comprehensive agreement." So nothing fundamental, in his view, has changed.

His first meeting was with Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, yesterday. He is scheduled to meet Palestinian officials today, Friday, in Ramallah. On Saturday, a White House representative said, Mitchell will travel to Egypt. Among the items for discussion, it is reported, will be a bid to encourage the country to establish conditions for the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing.

Mitchell's discussions with Mahmoud Abbas will certainly refer back to those the PA President had with President Obama in Washington DC on 9 June. During Abbas's visit, Obama pledged 400 million US dollars in new aid for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Everyone connected with the proximity talks so far has religiously observed a remarkably effective vow of silence. Virtually nothing of what has so far passed in the indirect negotiations has emerged into the light of day. If George Mitchell deserves praise for anything in this latest diplomatic effort, it is for managing to keep so tight a lid on the process. This surely also played a part in allowing the talks to be resumed after an international incident that would surely have derailed any such effort in the past.

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