State Department on Mideast talks: “We’re very, very close to an agreement”

State Department on Mideast talks: “We’re very, very close to an agreement”

The Middle East Quartet is expected to release its long-awaited statement on direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians Friday, as negotiations at the U.N. continued into late Thursday afternoon.

State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.

"There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It’s not over till it’s over,’" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "We think we’re very, very close to an agreement."

Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians’ calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are "terms of reference" for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as "preconditions" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.

The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a "full commitment to its previous statements," according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn’t explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.

Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.

Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.

When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.

So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn’t accept them.

"We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included," the PLO’s Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.

"The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity," Areikat said.

Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council’s David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.

Mitchell’s trip wasn’t a failure, according to Areikat. "I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it," he said.

The Quartet seems to be calculating that by referring to the March 19 statement but not repeating the items explicitly, Israel will be able to accept the invitation to the talks without technically backing down from its demand that no preconditions be set. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for direct talks to begin forthwith.

Although it’s too early to tell because the final Quartet statement hasn’t been released, the compromise might be crafty enough to get the job done.

"I believe we could be able to accept such a statement if it doesn’t assume to determine the terms of reference and doesn’t pre-empt the negotiations," one Israeli official told The Cable, responding to a query about the leaked draft.

Some reports blamed the delay on disputes inside the Quartet between the United States and the EU, largely about the same issues. But one European diplomat in Israel said that these reports were misleading and the real dispute was over how to accommodate both the Israelis and Palestinian on substance and choreography.

There is a sense of urgency about the Quartet statement, because Friday is seen as the last day that key U.S. officials, including Clinton, will be working before their August vacations and because preparations will be needed to get the direct talks underway in time to beat the deadline, assuming there are no further delays.

The State Department has been working the issue hard, and Clinton has spoken in the last 24 hours with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

If the Quartet can act Friday, diplomatic sources said the direct talks could commence in as little as a few days but probably no later than two weeks from now.

Crowley predicted that the United States would issue an accompanying statement that will have some additional details, such as where and when the negotiations will take place.

Crowley wouldn’t comment on speculation that the administration’s statement is meant to accommodate Netanyahu’s concerns about the scope of the negotiations and provide him with domestic political cover.

"Members of the Quartet will demonstrate their support for the process, we will demonstrate our support for the process, and we will outline specifics of where we go from here," he said.