Reviving the peace process?

In the run-up to the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly and the Quartet later this month in New York, the region is witnessing feverish diplomatic activity.

George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, is holding meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, popped down to Cairo for talks with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has just concluded a tour of several Arab countries.

In parallel, Israeli officials have been eager to convince the Israeli media that a breakthrough is at hand, that a deal between Israel and the US on a settlement construction freeze is imminent, and that talks between Palestinians and Israelis can therefore begin.

That is the opposite of the impression one gets on the Palestinian side. There, it seems, there are still wide gaps between the positions of the various players, especially on the issue of a settlement construction freeze, and little progress is being made.

The US does appear to be using the media, especially as a means to affect public opinion in Israel and in that way influence government thinking. Certainly, Mitchell has been consistent in rejecting, clearly and publicly, any suggestion that Israel and the US have reached agreement over a settlement construction freeze. Washington will be aware that the Israeli public is pragmatic and very sensitive to US-Israel relations.

The Israeli government, however, is also using the media to influence public opinion. That would certainly explain the repeated reports of impending US-Israel agreement over settlement construction. Such reports had been heard again and again over the past three months. Yet no agreement has emerged.

On Sunday, when Mitchell and Netanyahu met, both acknowledged that no agreement had been reached. But in a briefing to an Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday, Netanyahu said that the only outstanding issue to be resolved between Washington and Tel Aviv was over the length of any settlement freeze, which he implied the US had agreed would not be total.

There has also been a lot of speculation about a possible American initiative once talks get back underway. But that speculation has had an unmistakable Israeli tint in that it is suggested talks would focus solely on borders, leaving issues such as Jerusalem and refugees for later. If that were the case, it would mark a departure from the relevant UN resolutions that have traditionally been the terms of reference for talks.

There is, undeniably, an urgent need to resume peace talks. But the foundation for such talks must be laid carefully. There is great danger in entering into premature talks just in order to get a process going. Another dead-end process will simply remind Palestinians of Annapolis and the public will no longer tolerate talks for the sake of talks. Such a process will only backfire and damage any renewed credibility for the Palestinian leadership.

President Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, have worked hard to improve their public positions and have had some success recently. There are several reasons for this, including the Fateh conference and government successes in improving the economy and enhancing law and order. But one of the main reasons for that success is the consistent and clear position both have taken in rejecting resuming peace negotiations while Israel is allowed to continue settlement construction.

Should the Palestinian leadership be pressured into a peace process that is not preceded by a complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction in all occupied territory, this will undermine that leadership in the eyes of the Palestinian public and provide more ammunition to those opposed to peaceful negotiations as the means to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.