No progress — yet — in negotiations as Israel keeps up pressure + Palestinians wait

According to a report published by Ma’an News Agency today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) had a frustrating conversation with U.S. Special Envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, who came to Ramallah on Friday.

The two men reportedly met again on Sunday, in Amman — after Mitchell had a second meeting while in the region with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. — and no details of the second meeting have been released.

But, according to the Ma’an report today, Presidential aide Nimr Hammad said “that Abbas asked first that Israel commit to a settlement freeze even for a limited period of time. He also asked that negotiations be on the basis of a withdrawal” to the lines of 4 June 1967.

The Presidential aide offered the following summary of the Friday meeting:

Mitchell: The Israelis have requested renewed negotiations, saying they froze settlements for ten months.

Abbas: Go to Jerusalem and see for yourself the settlement activity and Judaization of the city – you’ll see the situation on the ground looks nothing like a settlement freeze.

Mitchell: The Israelis could take confidence-building steps like releasing prisoners, removing checkpoints, changing areas classified as “C” [according to the Oslo Accords] to “B” classification, and areas “B” to “A.”

Abbas: This is a good thing.

Mitchell: But there’s a prerequisite for that, resuming negotiations.

Abbas: We welcome these ideas but not as preconditions for talks.

“After this dialogue, Mitchell suggested indirect negotiations between other parties, during which he would shuffle between other sides, including the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese.

This summary account of last Friday’s Abu Mazen-George Mitchell talks is published here.

Separately, Ma’an also reported today that “Peace talks with the current Israeli administration are doubtful on account of its ‘stubbornness, procrastination, refusal to respond to the requirements of peace and to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state’, said member of Fatah’s Central Committee Nabil Sha’th on Tuesday”. This was reported by Ma’an here.

Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that one of its journalists have done an nvestigation on the ground in the West Bank, and discovered that “Israel claims to have eased Palestinian movement in the West Bank, but the Palestinians insist that more roadblocks have been appearing throughout the area. It turns out both Israel and the Palestinians are telling the truth, Haaretz has learned … The number of manned checkpoints across the territory has remarkably decreased, particularly those placed near central large cities – as per U.S. President Barack Obama’s demand. However, the Palestinian Authority has complained of a growing number of roadblocks. A Haaretz probe reveals that while the number of checkpoints with a consistent Israel Defense Forces presence has indeed dropped, the army has been positioning more roadblocks with only sporadic supervision on an operational basis. This phenomenon is true not only along the Green Line, but also near major cities in the northern West Bank – including Ramallah, Nablus and Tul Karm … The unmanned roadblocks have not eased movement, according to the Palestinians, because of the severe traffic jams they create. The IDF troops sporadically manning these stations tend to carry out meticulous searches, again causing severe delays and making movement slow. The IDF admitted that its troops sometimes conduct extensive searches at the unmanned roadblocks, but said such checks were warranted by specific intelligence information”. This report was published on the Haaretz website here.

On this point, YNet followed up today on an earlier report, and stated that “A senior American diplomat recently told representatives of the Israeli Defense and Foreign ministries, ‘I don’t want your security officers to check our cars. What if there are settlers among them? I will not have my people end up like (slain Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin’. The remark was made by Tim Laas, the regional security officer at the American Consulate in Jerusalem, during a discussion in the office of Deputy Inspector General Meir Ben-Yishai, head of security at the Israel Police. The discussion was held following a serious diplomatic incident, which took place about two months ago at the Gilboa crossing in the Jenin area, when a Defense Ministry inspectors stationed at crossing between Israel and the Palestinian Authority stopped a convoy of vehicles belonging to the American Consulate. The security guards asked the convoy passengers to identify themselves, but the latter refused to open a door or a window and barricaded themselves inside the vehicles in protest of the Israeli demand to run a security check, blocking the crossing for hours”.

The inviolability of diplomatic vehicles is something that arises episodically in the West Bank and in Gaza, as Israeli soldiers try, periodically, to erode long-standing diplomatic conventions. It is not entirely clear from the YNet report today how this is being resolved — but it sounds like yet another version of “We’ve done a thorough investigation and found that we are right and you are wrong”.

The YNet report, somewhat incomprehensibly, says that “Following the incident, the Defense Ministry filed a complaint with the Foreign Ministry against the American Embassy and is considering filing a complaint with the police against the Palestinian drivers. Laas said during the discussion, ‘It’s inconceivable that American diplomats should have to open a door to identify themselves. I find it unacceptable to have a simple guard run a security check on senior officials and diplomats. We are not a Coca Cola truck’. A representative of the American Embassy apologized for the incident during the meeting. Foreign Ministry representative Gil Lainer said that ‘there are procedures and rules and they must be honored’. Deputy Inspector General Ben-Yishai concluded the discussion by saying that the Americans acted inappropriately and that the security guards were simply trying to check the Palestinians driving the vehicles. At the end of the discussion it was decided to form new procedures, according to which only Palestinian drivers would be checked and passengers refusing to identify themselves would be detained for an unlimited period of time“. This YNet report can be read in full here.

The Director of Policy and Government Relations at the Washington-based group Americans for Peace Now (APN is a spin-off of the original Israeli Peace Now movement), Lara Friedman, wrote last week in a post entitled Democracy in jeopardy: Israel intensifying efforts to quash dissent, published here on the APN website that “It is clear to all of us who work on issues related to peace, human rights or Israeli civil society, that the government of Israel is deliberately and systematically upping the ante and increasing the pressure on those who do not toe the Israel policy line. We are seeing this in the treatment of foreigners who have anything to do with the Palestinians … We are seeing it, too, in the outrageous tactics being used against peaceful and legal protests against the situation in Sheikh Jarrah … And we are seeing this in the heavy-handed approach to foreign diplomats posted to Israel … Israel’s foreign minister is accusing diplomats of smuggling money into Gaza and is establishing a new policy requiring that diplomats and their cars be searched before entering Gaza … [n.b. – The original report is published in translation from the Hebrew on Didi Remez’ blog here, which notes that Israeli authorities are vowing to conduct intensified searches at Erez crossing to prevent the transfer of amounts more than 90,000 N.I.S., or shekels, even divided among multiple vehicles ...].

Lara Friedman then comments that “In one fell swoop Israel is (a) implicitly accusing foreign diplomats of financing Hamas and (b) throwing away hundreds of years of diplomatic custom that makes diplomats (their persons and their vehicles) immune from search. Does Israel seriously expect diplomats to agree to this? Of course not, but the result will be a ‘chilling effect’ – as in, no country will agree to have its diplomats subjected to such treatment and therefore diplomats will stop going to Gaza. This is just the latest effort to make life difficult for diplomats whose job it is to deal with the Palestinians.  Precedents include the harassment of US diplomats entering and exiting the West Bank, under the pretext that they might be smuggling Palestinians into Israel.  The implication, of course, is that Israel cannot trust US diplomats – like General Keith Dayton – not to smuggle terrorists into Israel. (The original headline of the linked article, which ran as a Jerusalem Post ‘exclusive’, read ‘US consulate car tried to run over checkpoint guard‘ – this is the headline that still shows up in google and in the tab on the top of the JPost page; it was subsequently amended to ‘nearly runs over guard’ – perhaps after a US protest – but the original has been copied all over the internet) … We are also seeing this with attacks – some by the government, some by Knesset firebrands and their supporters (and not opposed in any way publicly by the government) – on funding for Israeli NGOs working on these issues”…

Meanwhile, Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz today that “Monday morning, as George Mitchell was on the way home from another diplomatic mission short on breakthroughs, Saeb Erekat did not sound dismayed. On the contrary, the head of the Palestinian negotiation team vehemently argued that the American envoy’s last visit actually moved up the moment of truth for the White House. The veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite move of throwing the ball into the Palestinians’ court stopped working with the Americans. They are patiently waiting for the prime minister’s answer to two questions: First, is he ready for the negotiations to pick up where they left off at the end of the former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s term? Second, does he accept the principle that the territory transferred to a Palestinian state will be the same size as the territory captured by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza during the Six-Day War. The international community’s patience, Erekat concluded, is wearing thin. Erekat is not alone in his thinking. Over the weekend, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed at Israel as not only the one responsible for the stagnation in the diplomatic process, but also for the thawing of the freeze on construction in the settlements. Two months after the government decision on November 26 to freeze construction in Jewish settlements for 10 months, you’d have to be blind, an idiot, or a member of the Yesha Council of settlements to use the term ‘freeze’ to describe the real estate situation in Judea and Samaria … The Civil Administration confirmed that the freeze also applied to industrial and commercial zones, and that surveys conducted last week in the Ariel region found several violations of the freeze order and an injunction to halt the construction was even issued. So what? As mentioned, two days ago Haaretz documented bulldozers at work there (and also in the Barkan industrial zone) … It seems that the freeze on the construction of new industrial zones in national priority zones of the government in the heart of the West Bank is not at the top of the defense minister’s list of priorities. He apparently was busy upgrading the status of Ariel University Center of Samaria. Netanyahu’s colleagues will probably explain to the Americans that besides for the settlers, factories also experience natural growth”. This Akiva Eldar report can be read in full here.

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