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On Mideast Talks, U.S. Moves to ‘Main Course’

BY Larisa Epatko  December 17, 2010 at 10:30 AM EST

Palestinian security forces during envoy George Mitchell's visit. (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration has shifted gears in Mideast peace talks away from Israeli settlements and toward other core issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and analysts say they expect borders will be the next focal point.

In a Dec. 10 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need for the two sides to address the borders of a future Palestinian state, control of Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell then traveled to the region to try to advance the new focus, meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The new approach came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a settlement freeze, which expired in September, and the administration appeared to abandon its efforts to convince him to do so. Direct Israeli-Palestinian talks broke off as a result of the settlement freeze expiring.

After two years of spending a great deal of time on the settlement issue, the administration is essentially saying, leave this aside and get into the main task at hand, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute. “We’ve been dealing with the appetizers. Now let’s deal with the main course.”

The administration’s well-intentioned but rigid stance on extending the settlements moratorium basically boxed in the parties to take positions that didn’t allow for flexibility, according to Makovsky.

But coming to an agreement on borders will make the settlements issue moot, he said. And the U.S. wants to see progress on territory and security because the differences between the two sides on these issues are relatively narrow, he added.

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya, said he thought the decision not to press forward with the freeze, while he understood it, was a mistake, and that the administration should have thought of a Plan B.

“When you demand something from a government, even an ally, when you ask something in a clear and explicit way, there has to be afterwards ‘or else,’ and there was no ‘or else,’ or even incentives,” he said.

Melhem said he also thought borders would be the next issue on the table as an indirect way of dealing with settlement activities, which is still the fundamental immediate issue for the Palestinians.

“In other words, if we can determine where the border is between a future Palestine and Israel, then we can say that on this side of the border, settlements are totally unacceptable and on this side they may be acceptable, particularly those big settlements around the Jerusalem area.”

Time is of the essence, Melhem added. The administration has tried direct talks, indirect negotiations, putting pressure on Israel, and if nothing substantive happens by the spring, “many Palestinians will say it’s useless, the U.S. administration will begin thinking about 2012 (elections), other regional issues will force themselves on the agenda, … and people will say it’s almost two-and-a-half years, what do you have to show for it,” he said.

Diana Buttu, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said many Palestinians already have lost faith in the peace talks.

“As a Palestinian, when you see that your situation has gotten worse with peace negotiations — 17 years of them — rather than better, there’s very little that can be pushed to say this is the way that you should be going,” she said.

Buttu said she expects the Palestinian side will move away from negotiations and toward international bodies for action, such as trying to get the U.N. Security Council to intervene and pursuing recognition of an independent Palestinian state from other entities.

“It’s getting to a point where people no longer believe in the peace process and instead are looking to other mechanisms,” she said.