U.S. Mideast Envoy Faces A Deadlock

George Mitchell (left) meets Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak i i

George Mitchell (left) meets Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Matty Stern/U.S Embassy, HO via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matty Stern/U.S Embassy, HO via AP
George Mitchell (left) meets Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

George Mitchell (left) meets Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Matty Stern/U.S Embassy, HO via AP

The Obama administration's envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is back in the region, trying to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But he is facing an uphill battle.

On the eve of Mitchell's talks in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said even if there is a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel will insist on maintaining a presence on the border between the West Bank and Jordan to ensure there is no arms smuggling.

"I believe that this requires — in the case of a future settlement with the Palestinians — this will require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state," Netanyahu said.

It is the latest in a series of demands from both sides that have prevented a resumption of peace talks. The Palestinians say they won't return to the negotiating table without a full freeze in Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel has imposed a partial and temporary freeze in the West Bank only.

Crossfire Between Sides

At a news conference Wednesday, Netanyahu said the Palestinians are preventing the two sides from getting into what he called the "negotiating tent."

"The Palestinians have climbed up a tree," Netanyahu said. "They are not in a tent; they are not in the entrance to the tent; they are climbing higher and higher in the tree. And they like it up there. People bring ladders to them — we bring ladders to them — the higher the ladder, the higher they climb. They should be told fair and square, simply and forthrightly get into the tent and start negotiating for peace. We are ready to begin. I'm ready to begin. "

Netanyahu's comments drew a sharp response from the Palestinians.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told NPR that Netanyahu is setting his own conditions for the resumption of talks. He noted that the Israeli leader has called for the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state, said the status of disputed Jerusalem is off the table in any discussion and now wants control of the future state's border with Jordan.

"What they are doing is undermining the two-state solution," Erekat said. "There is no other option than the two-state solution. Maybe they don't want me to have a state? I cannot live as their slave."

Hope For Negotiations

Erekat said he is asking Mitchell to push the Israelis into resuming negotiations where they left off with the previous Israeli government of Ehud Olmert.

"I want to be encouraged by Sen. Mitchell succeeding and bringing us back to the negotiating table. And specifying that negotiations should resume where we left them in December 2008," Erekat said. "We were so close."

The Netanyahu government says that it doesn't want to be bound by the framework of previous negotiations.

Palestinian sources say they have offered to accept a short-term moratorium on Israeli building in east Jerusalem to kick start the process.

It's an offer that has been rebuffed by Netanyahu, who says Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel.

One Palestinian negotiator says he is not expecting the Mitchell visit to break any new ground.

Presidential Talks

Despite the chilly relations between the two sides, Israeli President Shimon Peres told NPR he regularly speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the hopes of finding a way to revive the talks.

"I think he would expect us to do a gesture that would demonstrate in the eyes of his own people what he calls a serious intention to build a Palestinian state," Peres said. "The prime minister feels he did it, so again we have to find bridges."

The Israeli press reported this week that in one private conversation, Peres told the Palestinian leader that the continuing impasse could lead to violence. He reportedly warned Abbas that he is "playing with fire."

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