A new round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has taken place as US envoy George Mitchell tries to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. However, regional experts remain pessimistic.
Netanyahu's settlement plans alienate Obama from Abbas
Mitchell held talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials last week in a desperate attempt to salvage negotiations over a peace deal in the region.
Mitchell, who was last in the region in October, was attempting to bring the two sides together for talks for the first time since a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement building on Palestinian territory expired at the end of September.The Palestinians have refused to engage in peace talks since the moratorium on settlement building ended.
However, the US envoy arrived with little hope of getting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu in the same room together with the best hope of progress coming from a reopening of "proximity" talks with the US acting as a go-between. During his meetings, Mitchell suggested a six-week period of "parallel" talks where negotiators would hold separate talks with US officials. However, the failure of the US to secure a new Israeli settlement freeze has not only ended any chance of direct negotiations but has put in jeopardy any prospect of a return to any kind of dialogue.
Settlement building is a core issue in the Palestinians list of grievances against Israel, along with disagreements over borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees and the access to water supplies.
Netanyahu effectively announced last week that the United States had given up on trying to force Israel to abandon its settlement plans. Washington later confirmed it had dropped its bid to persuade Israel to renew a partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction after Israel rejected a package of incentives - including advanced US jet fighters - in exchange for a new three-month ban.
Experts believe that the failure of the US in preventing further settlement building has seriously undermined Washington's credibility and ability to broker a deal.
Settlement defeat undermines 'weak' United States
Mitchell (l.) arrived just a week after the US admits defeat
"The US administration has given up for now on achieving a settlement moratorium which would be essential to stop the further fragmentation of the territory available for a future Palestinian State," Dr. Murial Asseburg, the head of the Middle East and Africa Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "Indeed, the Israeli government now feels vindicated."
The US is the only actor accepted by both parties as a broker which has the necessary clout not only to get to an agreement but also to give the necessary security guarantees, she said. However, the effect of this failure was now clear. "The US administration is now perceived as being defeated, weak, unwilling and incapable of engaging in consistent and effective diplomacy and of exerting the necessary pressure needed to achieve peace in the region."
With confidence over the current US approach to the peace process dwindling, there is a growing belief that Washington should adapt its policy to the changing realities in the region if it hopes to broker any kind of deal.
However, Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes the Americans' hands are now tied by bonds of their own making.
Embattled Obama leaves Arab supporters exposed
Obama's whole foreign policy hinges on Middle East peace
"President Obama has lost the struggle over the settlement issue and has seen the two-state solution, the major plank not only of his Middle East strategy but his whole foreign policy, destroyed before his eyes," he told Deutsche Welle. "There is nothing Obama can do now; this is the end of the peace process as it currently exists and we won't see any change until the next US presidential election."
Gerges said that Obama's weakened position, both internationally and domestically, has ruled the US out of the equation, leaving Israel empowered and the pro-West Arabs - including President Abbas - dangerously exposed. The implications of Washington's failure could affect the wider Middle East.
"Abbas has invested everything in the belief that only the US can deliver in the peace process and that Obama was committed to the two-state solution, a belief held by other pro-West Arab leaders in the region," Gerges said.
"This has strengthened the hand of the pro-Iran Arabs - such as Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas - who support the resistance model; the belief that only resistance can force Israel to accept an independent Palestinian state."
Gerges went as far as to forecast a return to hostilities before the summer of 2011. "It is highly likely that we will see some violence or a return to conflict in the next six months or so," he said.
Without a US commitment, Abbas finds himself exposed
According to Muriel Asseburg the seemingly intractable situation leaves three options for the Palestinians: "Going for a unilateral declaration of statehood, for a 'uniting for peace' approach through the General Assembly or for dissolving the Palestinian Authority and demanding annexation of the Palestinian territories and equal rights in Israel - the most frightening option for the Israeli government and public."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge