U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are likely to survive Israel’s raid on a convoy of activists and aid workers trying to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority said hours after the May 31 incident that they want to return to negotiations, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dispatched George Mitchell, her special envoy on Middle East peace, to talk to both sides.
“The major U.S. objective is managing this crisis so that when we’re done, when the crisis passes and when we get to the other side, it still has enough clout, leverage and credibility with the Israelis and Palestinians to move peace talks forward,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The Obama administration protected Israel from direct censure at the United Nations Security Council early yesterday after nine activists among hundreds trying to reach Gaza in a six-ship flotilla died in a clash with Israeli commandos sent to stop them. The council settled on a statement that condemned “acts which resulted” in the deaths and called for a prompt investigation, while not singling out Israel.
Clinton said later that the situation in Gaza is “unsustainable and unacceptable” and both Israel’s security needs and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in the Hamas- controlled enclave should be addressed.
“Ultimately, the solution to this conflict must be found through an agreement based on a two-state solution negotiated between the parties,” Clinton told reporters, referring to the aim of a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel. “This incident underscores the urgency of reaching this goal, and we remain committed to working with both sides to move forward these negotiations.”
The U.S. would “welcome efforts to promote the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate and internationally recognized Palestinian Authority,” Clinton added.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is sending a delegation headed by billionaire businessman Munib Masri to Gaza for talks on reconciliation between the enclave’s Hamas rulers and Abbas’s Fatah party.
Peace talks have focused on the West Bank, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the U.S. refuse to engage Hamas, which wrested control of Gaza from Fatah and which the U.S. calls a terror organization hostile to Israel.
Israeli controls on the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza began in 2007 in an attempt to squeeze Hamas.
Speaking at a conference today in the West Bank, Abbas said Israel’s attack on the flotilla was tantamount to “state terrorism.” He said he will ask President Barack Obama for “courageous decisions” when he meets with him in Washington this month.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an interview that Israelis “want the peace process to continue, we want to move forward to direct talks, that’s the way to make peace.”
Regev said he hoped that the “extreme provocation” of the activist flotilla “will not be used as an excuse to hold up the political process.”
“The gravity of the current situation makes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more pressing,” Okabe said.
The Palestinian Authority has distinguished itself from Hamas by embracing diplomacy over confrontation, and its political survival is based on promises of peace for the Palestinian people, Miller said.
“Abbas understands that his whole lifeline -- even as he bemoans the Israelis and his belief that the U.S. doesn’t support him enough -- is Israel and the U.S.,” Miller said.
For Israelis, the appeal of peace talks may lie in rehabilitating their international image and alliance with Turkey, once a close Muslim ally and the starting point for the flotilla.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel yesterday of carrying out a massacre.
Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, held a previously scheduled meeting with Clinton in Washington yesterday, and Obama talked with Erdogan by telephone.
Obama “affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security,” the White House said in a statement.
Israel fought a three-week war in Gaza in December 2008 intended to stop Hamas and other militant groups from firing rockets at its towns and cities. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 14 Israelis died. About 330 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the end of the operation, killing one foreign worker last March, the army said.
The conflict opened a rift with Turkey, which at the time was attempting to mediate talks between Israel and Syria.
In January 2009, Erdogan clashed with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the Gaza conflict, telling him that “when it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”
“Israel’s popularity is really bad, they need to work on the PR,” said Taghreed El-Khodary, a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Maybe they will be pushed to speed up with the proximity talks.”
Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in the “proximity talks” in which Mitchell mediates.
Mitchell said the situation remains “volatile, complex and dangerous, but it is not hopeless,” during a May 24 lecture at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said that the U.S. hoped to move both parties to direct talks as soon as possible.