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More Questions Than Answers in Middle East Talks

A handout picture released by the US Embassy in Israel shows US Middle East envoy George Mitchell (L) listening to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Jerusalem, 20 May 2010

A second round of indirect talks has ended in Middle East. They are part of a four-month effort by the United States to jumpstart peace negotiations that ended eighteen months ago. Israeli and Palestinian analysts have different views on what can be achieved in the coming weeks.

Few details have emerged out of so-called proximity talks held this week between U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Israel says it will not discuss the issue of settlements or Jerusalem outside of face-to-face talks. But the Palestinians don't want to participate in direct talks until Israel stops the expansion of Jewish settlements in disputed territories.

Maen Rashid Areikat
Maen Rashid Areikat

"We are not saying that we will not speak directly to the Israelis," said Palestinian Liberation Organization envoy to Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat. "We are saying that we cannot conduct negotiations with the Israelis about the future of the occupied territories, a viable Palestinian state on 22 percent of what used to be historic Palestine."

"We cannot negotiate with the Israelis when they are continuing to build settlements and confiscate land and take measures that are undermining the basic, fundamental cornerstone of achieving peace in the Middle East," he added.

Barak Ravid, Diplomatic Correspondent at Israel's Haaretz Daily newspaper, says the Israelis agreed to a ten-month moratorium on building settlements in the West Bank, which will expire in September - at the same time that proximity talks will end.

"I don't think that the Palestinians will see a full freeze of building in East Jerusalem," he said. "This will not happen. Especially through a public declaration by Mr. Netanuyahu. It might happen [de facto] on the ground, but the Palestinians won't get the public statement that they want on it."

Ravid offers his view of the Palestinian position. "I think that the PA has decided that at least publically it should embrace the efforts of President Obama and his envoy, Mr. Mitchell, and to show that they are on board. Because at the end of the day and the end of those four months, the U.S. will determine whose fault it was that nothing was achieved," he said.

He says he believes the purpose of the proximity talks is to facilitate a new U.S. peace plan. "The administration knows that there's actually no chance of getting any success out of it, but it needs to show to both sides and to the international community that it tried through negotiations, it failed, so now we can put forward a peace plan of our own," said Ravid.

But PLO Envoy Areikat credits the new American administration for its renewed commitment to breaking the Middle East impasse.

"From day one, the Obama Administration has shown serious engagement by appointing Senator Mitchell the day after Obama was inaugurated. I think they have a team of experts who are very well informed about the situation in the Middle East," he said.

Areikat describes the importance of the talks to the Palestinians. "We are living under a military occupation that is denying our basic rights and preventing us from progressing economically, socially, culturally…we are the ones who are paying the highest price for the lack of peace," said the envoy.

The U.S. has said that the full scope of the proximity talks will not be made public. And for now, there's no word on when the next cycle of talks will begin.