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PLO says Israel not entering proximity talks in good faith

As U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell shuttles back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region this week to kick off the long-awaited “proximity talks,” the Palestine Liberation Organization’s man in Washington remains skeptical the talks will lead to real progress in solving the overall conflict. “To be honest with you, I don’t ...

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As U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell shuttles back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region this week to kick off the long-awaited “proximity talks,” the Palestine Liberation Organization’s man in Washington remains skeptical the talks will lead to real progress in solving the overall conflict.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see signals or indications on the Israeli side to point they are really going to enter these talks with the objective of trying to end the conflict with the Palestinians,” PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable in an exclusive interview.

The Israeli side seems to be using the proximity talks to stall for time, hoping that the November elections in Washington and other priorities will lighten the U.S. pressure for a peace deal for a while, Areikat said.

“I’m saying that the Israelis, you watch what they’re saying and their behavior, it does not send strong signals to us that they are changing their mentality and they are entering with a desire to conclude and resolve the conflict. I think they are hoping that time will somehow make the administration abandon its offers, and things on the ground will undermine the process,” he said. “I don’t think they are sincere. But they have a chance to prove that.”

For their part, the Israelis say the Palestinians have thrown up new objections to negotiations, insisting on a complete settlement freeze before agreeing to sit down with their Israeli counterparts. That was not a precondition in previous iterations of the peace process, the Israelis point out.

Interestingly, Areikat said the proximity talks have “have not started officially,” because all the discussions so far have focused on the agenda and procedures for the proximity talks, not the substance. And there’s no agreement of what the substance of the proximity talks should be.

“The Palestinians are saying all issues are on the table, the Israelis are saying let’s see how things will progress. We both have a different perception of what these proximity talks should yield or produce,” he said.

Asked why the Palestinians don’t just agree to direct talks with Israel now, Areikat admitted that part of the thinking was to keep the Obama administration involved as much as possible for as long as possible.

“It allows the U.S., for the first time since President Obama took office and appointed Senator Mitchell, with this team of seasoned experts on Middle East issues, to try to use their skills and diplomacy,” he said.

The proximity talks are scheduled to last four months, but that timeline is flexible, Areikat said. The Israelis must institute a total freeze on settlement building, even though their pledged 10-month freeze will expire, in order for talks to progress, he added.

“We do not believe that there is a moratorium; it’s irrelevant if they end it because we see continued settlement on the ground,” he said, adding that there is “more impact and significance” if Israel expands settlements in the Jerusalem area, as opposed to other parts of the West Bank.

The Obama administration’s focus on borders and security might not be the best approach, he said, because it assumes that other issues will be solved as a result of a border agreement. But the Palestinians want an agreement that directly addresses all issues, rather than a step-by-step process.

“We look at any deal as being one package. We’re not going to accept a partial agreement, an interim agreement, to defer issues until later,” Areikat said. For example, “We could make progress on water issues but not on Jerusalem, but we will not reach a final agreement unless we agree on all the issues.”

The Palestinians are also not willing to budge from their stance that there must be an acknowledgment of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, a concession Israel believes would endanger its fundamental identity as a Jewish state.

“Israel cannot escape its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem,” he said. “What we are saying is that Israel has to acknowledge that principle and then we and the Israelis will agree on the implementation and the mechanisms for implementing that … Don’t expect us to give up a very fundamental right … this is part of the overall package.”

As U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell shuttles back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region this week to kick off the long-awaited “proximity talks,” the Palestine Liberation Organization’s man in Washington remains skeptical the talks will lead to real progress in solving the overall conflict.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see signals or indications on the Israeli side to point they are really going to enter these talks with the objective of trying to end the conflict with the Palestinians,” PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable in an exclusive interview.

The Israeli side seems to be using the proximity talks to stall for time, hoping that the November elections in Washington and other priorities will lighten the U.S. pressure for a peace deal for a while, Areikat said.

“I’m saying that the Israelis, you watch what they’re saying and their behavior, it does not send strong signals to us that they are changing their mentality and they are entering with a desire to conclude and resolve the conflict. I think they are hoping that time will somehow make the administration abandon its offers, and things on the ground will undermine the process,” he said. “I don’t think they are sincere. But they have a chance to prove that.”

For their part, the Israelis say the Palestinians have thrown up new objections to negotiations, insisting on a complete settlement freeze before agreeing to sit down with their Israeli counterparts. That was not a precondition in previous iterations of the peace process, the Israelis point out.

Interestingly, Areikat said the proximity talks have “have not started officially,” because all the discussions so far have focused on the agenda and procedures for the proximity talks, not the substance. And there’s no agreement of what the substance of the proximity talks should be.

“The Palestinians are saying all issues are on the table, the Israelis are saying let’s see how things will progress. We both have a different perception of what these proximity talks should yield or produce,” he said.

Asked why the Palestinians don’t just agree to direct talks with Israel now, Areikat admitted that part of the thinking was to keep the Obama administration involved as much as possible for as long as possible.

“It allows the U.S., for the first time since President Obama took office and appointed Senator Mitchell, with this team of seasoned experts on Middle East issues, to try to use their skills and diplomacy,” he said.

The proximity talks are scheduled to last four months, but that timeline is flexible, Areikat said. The Israelis must institute a total freeze on settlement building, even though their pledged 10-month freeze will expire, in order for talks to progress, he added.

“We do not believe that there is a moratorium; it’s irrelevant if they end it because we see continued settlement on the ground,” he said, adding that there is “more impact and significance” if Israel expands settlements in the Jerusalem area, as opposed to other parts of the West Bank.

The Obama administration’s focus on borders and security might not be the best approach, he said, because it assumes that other issues will be solved as a result of a border agreement. But the Palestinians want an agreement that directly addresses all issues, rather than a step-by-step process.

“We look at any deal as being one package. We’re not going to accept a partial agreement, an interim agreement, to defer issues until later,” Areikat said. For example, “We could make progress on water issues but not on Jerusalem, but we will not reach a final agreement unless we agree on all the issues.”

The Palestinians are also not willing to budge from their stance that there must be an acknowledgment of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, a concession Israel believes would endanger its fundamental identity as a Jewish state.

“Israel cannot escape its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem,” he said. “What we are saying is that Israel has to acknowledge that principle and then we and the Israelis will agree on the implementation and the mechanisms for implementing that … Don’t expect us to give up a very fundamental right … this is part of the overall package.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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