Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting with Vice President Joe Biden today to explore ways of reviving Middle East peace talks that have stalled over a dispute about West Bank settlement construction.
Netanyahu arrived in New Orleans from Israel and will also hold talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the wake of Republican gains in Congress in last week’s mid-term elections. Both Biden and the Israeli leader are scheduled to address a Jewish leadership conference in New Orleans later today. President Barack Obama is on a trip to Asia.
“It is our firm belief that this impasse can be overcome and we should be able to move expeditiously back to direct negotiations,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told reporters aboard the flight.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he won’t continue talks if Israel keeps building settlements. He is scheduled to meet leaders of the Arab League on Nov. 9 to explore the option of seeking recognition for Palestinian statehood from the United Nations Security Council if Netanyahu doesn’t renew the limited building freeze he imposed last year.
That meeting may be postponed for a few days, Palestinian negotiators say. Abbas is willing to give the U.S. another “two or three weeks” to save the peace talks, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said after meeting Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in Washington on Nov. 4.
“The task before Netanyahu is to convince Israel’s friends in the Jewish community, the administration and the incoming Congress that he is very determined to move peace talks forward and that the settlement issue is a red herring,” Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu adviser and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said in a phone interview.
After leaving New Orleans tomorrow, Netanyahu, 61, will spend the rest of the trip in New York, where he plans to meet with Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Regev said. He is scheduled to fly back to Israel on Nov. 11.
Clinton, traveling in New Zealand last week, said she is working “nonstop” with Mitchell and other aides to salvage the latest round of negotiations. Obama kicked the talks off with a White House ceremony Sept. 1, only to watch them stall when the 10-month partial freeze on new West Bank settlements expired on Sept. 26.
Netanyahu and Abbas, 75, had agreed to try to reach a framework agreement within 12 months that would cover issues at the core of the conflict, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
Netanyahu has no meetings scheduled with the likely new House Speaker, John Boehner, or other Republican leaders, who won’t take office until the new year. He may, though, “be in situations where he meets at least part of the new leadership” on an informal basis during the trip, Shoval said.
Netanyahu “will not be making an effort to bear-hug the new leadership, that would be the wrong move,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “The fact that the administration has been weakened is clear. Netanyahu knows it and Obama knows it.”
Palestinians may get less money from the new Congress, said David Makovsky, head of the project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cited Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House and highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker, who has proposed linking allocation of funds for the Palestinian Authority to its recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
“The economic assistance to the Palestinians, which had been prominent in the Obama administration, could come under pressure now,” said Makovsky, speaking on Nov. 4 at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
U.S. bilateral assistance to Palestinians is expected to be $502.9 million this year and $550 million in 2011, according to the State Department and Congressional Research Service. Since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November 2004, aid has averaged about $400 million a year.
Netanyahu last month offered to renew the settlement freeze in exchange for such recognition. The Palestinians turned down the proposal saying it would undermine the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Israel says the step is necessary to ensure the Palestinians don’t make additional claims once a peace treaty has been signed.
“This man hasn’t shown any willingness to come closer to us and talk seriously about statehood,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said of Netanyahu in a phone interview. “He just says, ‘Seduce me, give me what I want, and maybe I’ll think about another partial freeze’.”
About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war. The UN says that settlements are illegal. Israel says the territory isn’t occupied because it wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war.
Even after his party’s mid-term defeat, Obama must push Israelis and Palestinians harder and spell out his own plan for an agreement because the two sides haven’t been able to do it themselves, said David Ricci, a Hebrew University political scientist in Jerusalem.
“This is the Middle East, where negotiations last until 30 seconds before the end,” Ricci said in a phone interview. “The only thing that closes the deal is the final offer and Obama hasn’t put his on the table.”