Obama to visit Israel and the West Bank
MARK WEISS in Jerusalem
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama plans to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in the coming year to press Israel and the Palestinians to make painful concessions in order to clinch a historic Middle East peace agreement in 2011.
The president, who set Middle East peace as one of his top foreign policy goals, will oversee the relaunch of direct peace talks between the sides next week in Washington. In order to achieve the ambitious target date set for a comprehensive peace agreement within a year, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the president plans to take a hands-on approach.
He will make his first visit as president to Israel and the West Bank to shore up support for the deal.
Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported yesterday that although Washington is pushing for a comprehensive peace deal within 12 months, implementation will be spread out over a 10-year period.
Based on leaked White House protocols of a conference call held this week between senior administration officials and American Jewish leaders, Yediot Aharonot reported that Washington wants the intensive talks to cover all the core issues, such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
In parallel, the two leaders, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, will meet regularly to iron out differences.
Such a strategy ties in with the thinking of Mr Netanyahu who has proposed face-to-face talks with the Palestinian president every fortnight. “Real negotiations in the Middle East are only direct, quiet and continuous talks between the leaders on the fundamental issues,” he said on Thursday. “This is why I offered to hold the talks in this format.
Washington will introduce its own bridging proposals if the sides reach a deadlock in the talks.
US pressure will also be exerted on friendly Arab states to move towards normalisation with Israel.
Israeli and US officials are still consulting over how to breach the first major hurdle expected in the talks – the end of Israel’s 10-month West Bank settlement freeze on September 26th.
Palestinian officials have already made it clear that they cannot negotiate if Israel resumes building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
A number of Israeli ministers have spoken out in favour of resuming construction. Dan Meridor, from the prime minister’s ruling Likud party, proposed a formula whereby construction would resume, but only in the large settlement blocs which would be likely to remain under Israeli control as part of a land swap agreement with the Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu has said in the past that the moratorium will end after the 10-month period. However, in recent weeks, his spokesmen have said that the issue of settlements is one that would be discussed during the negotiations.
Yesterday the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, termed the peace talks “the latest in a string of Israeli crimes” against the Palestinian people. He said the negotiations were illegitimate and the result of coercion from Washington.