By Douglas Hamilton
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s peace envoy sought on Thursday an “early relaunch” of Israeli-Palestinian talks but Israel’s foreign minister said Washington’s goal of comprehensive peace was an illusion.
With wider Muslim-Jewish tension brewing over access to holy sites in Jerusalem, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas struggling for credibility and Islamist Hamas ascendant in Gaza, omens for U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s trip were not good.
“We are determined, persevering, and we recognize the complexities and the difficulties,” he told reporters before talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.
“We remain committed and confident that ultimately the goal of comprehensive peace will be achieved.”
Resuming talks suspended 10 months ago was essential for a comprehensive regional treaty involving Israel and neighbors that include Syria and Lebanon. Obama believes “there is no alternative” if the region wants peace, Mitchell said.
Desultory peace talks were derailed by the Gaza war. Obama has made their resumption a priority. He invested more political capital last month by arranging a meeting of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York, but with scant results.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced before meeting Mitchell earlier on Thursday that he would tell the envoy there was no chance of a peace deal for many years.
“There are many conflicts in the world that haven’t reached a comprehensive solution and people learned to live with it,” Lieberman, a hawk in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition government, told Israel Radio.
“Whoever says that it’s possible to reach in the coming years a comprehensive agreement…simply doesn’t understand the reality,” Lieberman said. “He’s spreading illusions and in the end brings disappointment.”
But the center-left Barak took a different tack, telling Mitchell that “the time had come to move determinately forward” and that comprehensive peace in the Middle East was not a “zero-sum game” but a “win-win” situation for all the parties.
U.S. officials said Mitchell, who meets Abbas and Netanyahu on Friday, was back with a sense of urgency but no expectation of a breakthrough.
Since his appointment in January, Mitchell has visited Israel and the West Bank nine times. The missions have been stymied by Netanyahu’s refusal to halt settlement construction and by Arab states’ reluctance to make peace overtures.
The Palestinians say Mitchell must realize that Lieberman has made it clear why “there will be no relaunch of negotiations any time soon,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters from Rome, where Abbas was on an official visit.
“We need to hear a response to this statement, from Mitchell and from the American administration who are making efforts to salvage the peace process while faced with an Israeli government which destroys all those American efforts.”
King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country has made peace with Israel and who plays an important role in advancing the peace process with the Palestinians, was quoted on Thursday as saying in an interview “we are sliding back into the darkness.”
The sense of pessimism was deepened by the political weakness of Abbas, who has angered Palestinians by agreeing under U.S. pressure not to push for action on a U.N. war crimes report critical of Israeli conduct of the Gaza war.
Abbas aides admit this was a mistake and say he will explain everything in a broadcast to the nation. Support for the 74-year-old leader has been badly damaged. Critics say he should resign and in the Gaza Strip he is branded a “traitor.”
Hamas asked Egypt to postpone a meeting with Abbas’s Fatah movement to sign a reconciliation pact. It was supposed to take place in Cairo on Oct 24-26, but Hamas said Abbas’s decision had “sabotaged the atmosphere.”
Unlike Abbas and Fatah, Hamas is enjoying a wave of popularity for securing the release of 20 female prisoners from Israel last week in return for a video showing that the Israeli soldier it has held captive for three years is alive and well.
Like Lieberman, Hamas does not believe in a comprehensive peace leading to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It proposes a long-term truce but has no intention of surrendering its claim to all of formerly British-ruled Palestine.
Jordan’s King Abdullah warned in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz that Jerusalem, which Israel says is its non-negotiable, non-divisible capital, is “a tinderbox” that could ignite fire throughout the Islamic world.
Palestinian leaders on Thursday called for a general strike over disputed Jerusalem and warned of further protests on the Muslim day of Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque.
Israel say it is not taking seriously recent Palestinian warnings that a general uprising is about to break out.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Alastair Macdonald Joseph Nasr and Sangwon Yoon in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)