Obama seeks trilateral summit with Israel, Palestinians
Washington will announce the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through a trilateral summit of U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The meeting would take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly late this month; two years would be allotted to completing talks on a peace agreement.
On Monday President Shimon Peres confirmed to Fox News that such a summit was being considered.
U.S. officials briefed representatives of several European Union countries last week on the diplomatic vision Obama will present at the UN.
Last week, after meeting Netanyahu in London, special U.S. envoy George Mitchell briefed several European Union foreign ministers on the latest developments in Middle East peace talks. Meanwhile, senior White House officials updated several European ambassadors on their plan for advancing the negotiations.
Israeli envoys Yitzhak Molcho and Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog flew to Washington on Monday for talks with Mitchell.
European and Israeli diplomats told Haaretz that Mitchell and other top Washington officials said "Obama has no new peace plan," but only that the diplomatic outline is different from the so-called Annapolis process and is based on several guiding principles.
First is that talks will advance according to the Middle East road map. Second, the target for completing negotiations will be two years from now. Third, unlike the Annapolis process, the United States will take a more active role in the talks and will "take a seat at the negotiating table."
The U.S. officials told the Europeans that in the coming weeks, possibly before the General Assembly opens, Washington could declare an agreement for "confidence-building measures" drafted by Israel and the Palestinians to allow talks to progress.
"We didn't reach 100 percent of what we wanted in Israel and the Arab states, but we got enough to allow for the renewal of talks," a U.S. official said.
The agreement would call for Israel to temporarily or partially freeze settlement building, though the length of the freeze was not stipulated. "In the next meeting with the Israeli negotiating team the issue will be settled conclusively," a U.S. official said. Their counterparts in Jerusalem said the freeze could last at least six to nine months. One Israeli source said the freeze could last up to a year.
Meanwhile, the American officials said they had achieved a series of normalization steps by Arab states toward Israel, though Saudi Arabia had declined to commit to any goodwill gestures toward Israel. Instead, it is transferring several hundred million dollars to the authorities in Ramallah.
One European diplomat said Qatar would reopen the Israeli diplomatic mission in Doha, and several other states will allow direct flights from Israel through their airspace and to their airports. Several Persian Gulf states also agreed to grant tourist visas to Israeli tourists and businesspeople.
The American officials said that after talks are renewed, they would be interested in convening an international peace summit before the end of this year. European and Israeli diplomats said Moscow is a leading possibility to host the meeting, and that members of the Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators had already promised Russia to hold it in that nation's capital.
Another candidate to host the meeting is Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak recommended to Obama that the summit be held in the city in the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, of which France and Egypt are co-presidents. Sarkozy also floated the idea separately with Netanyahu and Abbas.
American officials told the Europeans they are also interested in restarting the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese diplomatic tracks, though those processes would take several months to launch. Restarting those tracks, they said, would also improve U.S.-Syrian and Syrian-Lebanese relations.
Monday Abbas said he would agree to renew the peace process with Israel only if it agreed to a freeze on settlement construction.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Haaretz after meeting Israeli representatives Monday that no agreement had been reached on freezing settlement growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Solana said Mitchell would return to the area next week in hopes of returning Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Solana Monday, "We must not commit to target dates on a comprehensive agreement, since in the past this has brought disappointment and frustration, and led to conflicts between the two sides.
"The Palestinians' unilateral initiatives do not contribute to creating a positive dialogue between the two sides. If the Salam Fayyad initiative goes through, it won't go unanswered," Lieberman said. Last week the PA prime minister announced a plan for creating a "de facto Palestinian state" within two years if the peace process continues to stagnate.