By Alastair Macdonald
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s brief Middle East summit looked like a victory of sorts to many Israelis on Wednesday, angered Palestinians and raised deep questions about what kind of peace talks, if any, might follow.
Beyond failing to end differences over Jewish settlements in the West Bank lies concern that, whatever agreement Obama coaxed out of the two sides to sit and talk soon, they are so far apart on what is even open to discussion that further frustration lies ahead in a conflict already steeped in 60 years of spilled blood.
One Palestinian official voiced the explicit risk of further stalemate generating a “wave of violence and bloodshed.”
“The gap between the positions is unbridgeable in the foreseeable future,” Dov Weisglass, a former Israeli negotiator under right-wing premier Ariel Sharon, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth daily. “One’s maximum does not approach the other’s minimum.”
Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas were too beholden to internal pressures to make deals, he said, noting the Israeli leader’s alliance with settlers and the challenge Abbas faces from the Hamas Islamists who control Gaza.
Israeli officials were pleased by the first meeting with Abbas since Netanyahu took office in March. A spokesman noted Obama’s withdrawal of a demand that Israel stop expanding Jewish colonies on Palestinian land — Obama instead urged “restraint”:
“The prime minister is satisfied because his main position that negotiations should be without preconditions was accepted,” Netanyahu’s spokesman Nir Hefetz told Army Radio from New York.
Netanyahu himself, who has rejected demands for a settlement freeze, was quoted telling a newspaper: “I understand English — ‘restraint’ and ‘freeze’ are two different words.”
He also made clear what his aides have been saying privately — that he attaches lower priority to dealing with what seems a largely dormant threat from Palestinians than to halting Iran’s nuclear program: “The Iranian issue overshadows everything.”
For many analysts, a stated willingness to talk to Abbas is a price Netanyahu is paying for U.S. support against Tehran.
ABBAS COULD SHUN TALKS
For Abbas, the meeting was “not productive,” an aide said.
Many Israelis saw Abbas’s chilly handshake with Netanyahu in New York as a climbdown after he had ruled out talks without a settlement freeze. Mohammad Dahlan, a senior spokesman and former security chief for Abbas’s Fatah party, said Abbas could still refuse to accept an invitation from Obama to negotiations.
“The U.S. administration has retreated from its position at the expense of peace,” Dahlan told Reuters.
Abbas again demanded on Tuesday that any negotiations should be conditioned on freezing settlement, in line with the 2003 “road map” to peace, and should resume at a point reached a year ago, when Netanyahu’s centrist predecessor Ehud Olmert was offering a deal on borders and on dividing control of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu made clear that he will recognize no offer Olmert may have made, nor even discuss Israel’s hold on Jerusalem, nor its refusal to accept the return of Palestinian refugees.
Noting the power of Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel, Netanyahu sees no point in trying to negotiate final settlement of the core issues in the conflict, aides say. He is willing to discuss interim deals to bolster security and the economy.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Hefetz said: “I am not sure it is worth starting with issues that are controversial and explosive.
Dahlan said: “We know we’re weak but our strength stems from rejection of such meetings.” Asked about a risk of violence, he added: “People living under occupation have plenty of options.”
Another former commander of Palestinian armed forces and a senior Fatah leader, Jibril Rajoub, told Israel Radio: “If (Netanyahu) wants to push us into a corner … then I think he will drive us all into a wave of violence and bloodshed.”
Given bleak prospects for Israeli and Palestinian leaders launching negotiations on their own, commentators suggested only Obama might break the deadlock, though it was far from certain.
“There’s always room for surprise,” wrote commentator Ben Caspit in Israel’s Maariv newspaper. “Obama has promised to try and shake up the region and break the freeze. Who knows, perhaps he even knew what he was talking about when he said that.”