Middle East


Reopening dialog is the goal of the Obama administration's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. He is back in the region trying to start up peace talks again between Israel and the Palestinians.

As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem, Mitchell is facing an uphill battle.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the eve of Mitchell's talks here, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said even if there's 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.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): And 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the latest in a series of demands from both sides that have prevented a resumption of peace talks. The Palestinians say they won't sit down at 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. At last night's news conference, Netanyahu said the Palestinians are the ones preventing the two sides from getting into what he called the negotiating tent.

Prime Minister NETANYAHU: The Palestinians have climbed up a tree. They are not in the 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 Jerusalem is off the table in any discussion and now wants control of the future state's border with Jordan.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Negotiator): What they are doing, they are undermining the two-state solution. My option is the two-state solution. 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.

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

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

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Netanyahu government had said 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 in order to kick start the process. It's an offer that's been rebuffed by Netanyahu, who says Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel. What Senator Mitchell can accomplish on this trip remains to be seen, but one Palestinian negotiator says he is not expecting the visit to break any new ground. Despite the chilly relations between the two sides, Israeli President Shimon Peres told NPR he regularly speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the hopes of finding a way to revive the talks.

President SHIMON PERES (Israel): I think he would expect us to do a gesture that can demonstrate in the eyes of his own people what he calls a serious intention to build a Palestinian state. The prime minister feels he did it, so again we have to find bridges.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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