U.S. Believes Arab States Won't Scuttle Mideast Talks

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration believes it has persuaded Arab states not to scuttle the fledgling Middle East peace negotiations, officials said Thursday, despite the Israeli government’s refusal to freeze Jewish settlements and a vow by the Palestinians to walk away if Israel did not.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration believes it has persuaded Arab states not to scuttle the fledgling Middle East peace negotiations, officials said Thursday, despite the Israeli government’s refusal to freeze Jewish settlements and a vow by the Palestinians to walk away if Israel did not.

With the Arab League’s meeting on Friday expected to deliver a pivotal decision on the future of the talks, the United States has appealed to Jordan and other Arab nations to stop short of pushing the Palestinians to break off the negotiations.

After days of intensive diplomacy by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the administration’s special envoy, George J. Mitchell, the administration now expects the meeting in Libya to produce a stream of vitriol against Israel and an insistence that the two sides cannot talk while settlement building is under way, American and Israeli officials said, but no formal declaration that negotiations should be abandoned.

Such an outcome would allow the peace process to survive another tricky deadline but leave the negotiations basically where they have been since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, first sat down in Washington last month: stuck in the starting gate, with no further meeting scheduled until the issue of settlements is resolved.

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Palestinian officials have not commented on the prospective Arab League decision, and on Thursday were holding fast to their position that talks could not continue if settlement building did. But the Arab League’s carefully calibrated response would at least allow the lines to remain open.

The United States continues to haggle with Mr. Netanyahu over a package of security guarantees in return for a one-time 60-day extension of the freeze, Israeli and American officials said. But there are no ministerial meetings planned in coming days to consider extending the freeze, and it cannot be extended without ministerial approval.

The United States signed an agreement on Thursday to sell 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Israel. Officials said the deal was long in the making and not related to the effort to get the Israelis to extend the freeze, though the United States might throw in an extra plane as a sweetener for Mr. Netanyahu, they said.

In Israel, there was every indication that the Arab League meeting would pass without any announcement on settlements from the prime minister. A leader of the settler movement said Thursday that his group, Yesha Council, no longer saw the need to run advertisements pressing the government not to renew the construction freeze.

“We have pulled back our campaign and don’t feel that the coming days will be dramatic,” the group’s executive director, Naftali Bennett, said in an interview.

In Washington, the Israeli finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said that a deal would be “very difficult to deliver.” Mr. Steinitz, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said the prime minister faced almost insurmountable political hurdles within his coalition to extend what he had promised would be a one-time construction halt.

“He made it very clear, with U.S. backing, that this is a one-time unilateral gesture for 10 months, and since it is unilateral, it is not negotiated,” Mr. Steinitz said in an interview.

He acknowledged that the United States had offered Israel incentives, which other officials said ranged from military hardware to support for a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. And Mr. Steinitz left open the possibility that the deal could be made tempting enough to sway Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu insisted on Thursday that the world’s attention should be focused not on his building policy but on keeping the Palestinians in the talks.

“Today the question has to be put to the Palestinians, ‘Why are you leaving the talks?’ ” he said on a visit to the central city of Lod. “ ‘Why are you turning your backs on peace? Stay in the talks.’ ”

Most of the American diplomacy this week has focused on the Arab world. Mrs. Clinton spoke Thursday with Mr. Abbas and on Tuesday with Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh. Mr. Mitchell’s lieutenants spoke with officials from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Kuwait. On Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton met with the former British prime minister Tony Blair, who represents the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers: the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

“We want to see a positive signal come out tomorrow,” said Mark A. Toner, the acting State Department spokesman. He declined to say whether that should be an expression of support for the talks or merely an agreement not to call for them to be scrapped.

A senior Palestinian official expressed pessimism on Thursday that there would be further negotiations with the current Netanyahu government.

“There will be no serious political process while Netanyahu’s government pursues settlements,” the official, Yasir Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Mr. Abbas, said on Voice of Palestine radio. “I can go further and say that there will be no serious political process with Netanyahu’s government.”

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas met three times between Sept. 2 and the end of Israel’s 10-month settlement moratorium on Sept. 26. But the Palestinians say there is no point in meeting if the freeze is not renewed. Since there is no next meeting scheduled, there is nothing specific for Mr. Abbas to withdraw from in the coming days.

During his Thursday visit to Lod, Mr. Netanyahu also spoke about the new language he wants to bring to a loyalty oath for non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship. On Sunday he will ask the cabinet to approve a law requiring non-Jews to declare loyalty to “the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” The move is largely aimed at Palestinians who seek Israeli citizenship through marriage to Israeli Arabs.

“There is a great struggle today to annul and blur Israel’s identity as the national state of the Jewish people and say that it does not belong to the Jewish people in a national sense,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is an advocate of a loyalty oath, and there is speculation in Israel that Mr. Netanyahu, who originally favored a softer version of the oath, was seeking to placate Mr. Lieberman to get him to accept a freeze extension.

A top aide to Mr. Netanyahu denied on Army Radio that there was any such connection.

Source: nytimes.com