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Mitchell leaves Israel empty-handed; three-way meeting in New York?

Mitchell leaves Israel empty-handed; three-way meeting in New York?

U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell left Israel without a deal in place to freeze Jewish settlements, but sources close to the discussions tell The Cable that a three-way meeting between Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas could still happen on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, although the meeting wouldn’t necessarily launch negotiations.

"The Israelis and the United States are close to a deal and are agreed in principle on the broad strokes, but Israel’s piece is contingent on similar gestures from the Palestinians and the Arabs. And the Palestinians are refusing to deal," is how one source characterized the current state of play.

The drive to blame the Palestinians is already underway, with some saying that the administration let them off the hook by not requiring any confidence-building measures up front.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and Israeli sides are still willing to hold the three-way meeting in New York if the Palestinians are willing to abandon the idea that the meeting represents a launching of negotiations, the source said.

The New York Times basically confirmed the substance of the source’s readout, reporting:

The Netanyahu aide said that the gaps involved not only what Israel could give – a settlement freeze and agreeing that a two-state solution would be based on certain borders – but also what Arab states would give in return as confidence building measures. Israel is hoping for trade missions and flight rights over Arab countries that do not now have diplomatic relations with it.

One Middle East hand wrote in to add a cautionary note.

"The stuff about Israel and the United States being close to a deal on settlements is only partly accurate," said the expert, "Israel has been poking the U.S. in the eye on this for about 10 weeks, so any ‘deal’ the U.S. may do may simply not be sellable as a settlement freeze."

Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center scholar and former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, was pessimistic that any real progress was in the offing.

"They’ll get their trilateral meeting out of politeness to Obama, but somebody needs to point out that an agreement with Israelis, even to restrict settlements for a finite amount of time, has never happened before," he said.

If and when they get to actual negotiations, the gaps on fraught issues such as Jerusalem will be galactic, Miller continued. "When the crisis arrives, and it will, what does the administration do then?"

"The administration broke a lot of crockery with the Israelis and proved they couldn’t leverage anything," said Miller, "It makes America looks weak."