Biden Leads Latest US Push to Revive Mideast Peace Talks

Jerusalem – Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem Monday, topping off a string of high-profile visitors who appear to have succeeded in pushing reluctant Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table — or at least to separate tables.

Palestinian leaders announced over the weekend that they’d approved a proposal for indirect negotiations with Israel through U.S. mediators. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voiced his support last week in a statement to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, saying the “time was ripe for peace.”

The two parties are expected to issue a declaration within days announcing their participation in four months of peace talks, a deadline the Arab League set last week.

“We’ve been working hard in the region for several months to create the kind of political support that the parties will need if they make the decision to enter into discussions,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said after the Arab League voted to back negotiations.

Although they’ll end a 14-month hiatus in negotiations, there’s a Biblical flood of skepticism about the talks, in large part because this is the first time in 16 years that Israeli and Palestinian leaders won’t talk to one another directly, but instead rely on the Americans to carry messages between them.

Both sides face serious internal divisions, as well. Netanyahu leads a largely right-wing coalition that’s resisted the concessions that would be required to move down the internationally recognized road map for creating an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is battling the political schism that was created when the militant Islamic group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, effectively different Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank.

In an article called “Talks to Nowhere” in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, veteran commentator Shimon Shiffer wrote that the proximity talks “only demonstrate just how high runs the wall of alienation between them. It is difficult to believe that the mediator is going to succeed in bridging the deep chasms that separate them in the four months that have been allocated.”

“We think it’s unlikely that these indirect negotiations with the Netanyahu government will succeed, but we want to give an opportunity to the U.S. administration to continue its efforts,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official.

Writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Dina Ezzat said that in the Arab world “the most optimistic and moderate peace process diplomats in the region — when approached off the record — give indirect talks close to zero chance of producing a peace deal.”

Israeli leaders said they’ve faced intense U.S. pressure to re-enter negotiations.

“There has been fantastic pressure placed on us by the Americans,” said a Foreign Ministry official, who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t free to discuss the talks before they’ve been announced. “This is clearly something that the Obama administration feels needs to happen, and they are frustrated that they have not yet gotten everyone smiling around a table.”

Netanyahu, the official said, had accepted the principle of two states, but he opposes many of the concessions to a future Palestinian state that previous Israeli administrations had tabled.

While former prime minister Ehud Olmert said at the end of his term that Israel would need to recognize a Palestinian state “around the 1967 borders,” Netanyahu has resisted discussing any Israeli withdrawal from Jewish settlement blocs on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, a former Democratic senator from Maine, was in Jerusalem this weekend to prepare for Biden’s visit, which will be the highest-level visit to the area by an Obama administration official.

Walking into a meeting with Netanyahu Sunday, Mitchell said the goal of the talks is a “credible, serious, constructive process that will accomplish the objective which we all share: a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)