The US special envoy to the Middle East is to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in hopes of restarting the peace negotiations. With the start of George Mitchell's talks Friday morning, Israeli sources said they were optimistic about the possibility that the launch of proximity talks with the Palestinians will be announced.
Sources believe that, barring any setbacks, such an announcement may be made before the end of Mitchell's visit.
Mitchell's meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak began at the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv at 10 am Friday. The two held an hour-long private meeting, and were slated to discuss a series of Israeli gestures to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Details of the meeting were not released.
Jerusalem sources believe that Israel will make a number of goodwill gestures, including the release of prisoners, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, and the transfer of authority over certain areas in the West Bank.
However, during his meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres later Friday, Mitchell is expected to be told that Israel will not bend on its principle of not freezing construction in east Jerusalem.
Mitchell (L) and Barak in Friday's meeting (Photo: Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry)
Nonetheless, it seems Israel will commit to refrain from building or demolishing structures in Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city. The parties are also expected to agree that the core issues – including Jerusalem – will be discussed during the talks, most likely at the phase when negotiations move to direct talks, without Mitchell's mediation.
Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu in his office in Jerusalem at 1 pm. At 4 pm, he is slated to meet with President Peres.
Palestinians: US to demand freeze extension
Later Friday, the US envoy will travel to Ramallah for a series of meetings with heads of the Palestinian Authority, including President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
He is slated to return to the US on Sunday with a summary of his meetings, and it is likely that the start of proximity talks between the parties will be announced by the end of his visit.
PA sources also believe the start of peace negotiations will be announced in the coming days. The sources were weary of expressing optimism of the talks' chances of success, but said the American demands of Israel are encouraging.
"The question is," a Palestinian official told Ynet, "how do the Americans plan to force the Israelis to implement these demands, what is their monitoring mechanism, and will the talks be backed up by a clear timeframe imposed by the Americans?"
According to the official, US President Barack Obama several months ago spoke of the need to reach an agreement within two years, and the source pointed out that it has been a good few months since then.
American demands of Israel which the PA finds "encouraging" include: A serious discussion over the transfer of areas B and C to area A, allowing the Palestinians to operate police stations in areas B and C, significant easements on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, wide-scale removal of checkpoints, the release of prisoners, and allowing the Palestinians to operate their own institutions in Jerusalem, such as the Orient House, the trade bureau and other bodies.
The most important recent demand as far the Palestinians are concerned, is the execution of the second phase of the Road Map, which is meant to include a settlement freeze, and the opening of PA institutions in Jerusalem. "We have upheld our end of the bargain in the first phase," the Palestinian official said, "Which includes making order out of the security anarchy in the West Bank and disarming the militant infrastructures that are not affiliated with the Authority."
Of the second phase of the Road Map and the US demand for an Israeli settlement freeze the official said, "When we ask what body will monitor and impose it we also refer to Israel's work Yesterday in the Jerusalem area, (referring to al-Walaja, where Israel plans to build thousands of housing units and declared the area a closed military zone on Thursday) and we expect the American approach against the settlements to be much firmer."
Another possible impending US demand, Ynet has learned, is the extension of the settlement construction freeze period, even if it is not officially declared. According to the Palestinians, from messages they have received from the Americans, it seems the latter are determined to impose this extension.
Regarding the political aspect of the actual negotiations, the Palestinians said the US will demand Israel contribute to the success of Salam Fayyad's plan to establish the institutions of the Palestinian state within two years, by the summer of 2011.
"The firm message that we are getting from the Americans is that all issues, without exception, including Jerusalem and including the borders, will be on the agenda as early as in the phase of proximity talks," the officials said.
"We expect the Americans to apply the necessary pressure in order to succeed with the talks in the short term and in accordance with the goals they have set – the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders," the official added, saying that Obama had conveyed a memo to Abbas in which he committed to continue full force with the plans for a Palestinians state. It remained unclear whether the memo included a deadline.
Ali Waked contributed to this report