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Agence France-Presse

US Envoy Returns to Mideast Amid Little Hope


Backdropped by the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a masked Palestinian youth prepares to throw stones at Israeli policemen in Arab east Jerusalem. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell began a fresh trip to the region on Thursday aiming to push Israelis and Palestinians to agree to restart peace talks, but with few expecting a breakthrough. (AFP photo)

JERUSALEM - US Middle East envoy George Mitchell began a fresh trip to the region on Thursday aiming to push Israelis and Palestinians to agree to restart peace talks, but with few expecting a breakthrough.

The former senator was to meet Israel's president and foreign and defence ministers on Thursday ahead of separate talks on Friday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Hours ahead of his meeting with the American envoy, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict would not be solved within the coming years.

"Those who think that we can within the coming years reach a global deal that will end the conflict do not understand reality. They are sowing illusions," he told public radio.

"We have to be realistic -- we will not be able to reach agreement on core and emotional subjects like Jerusalem and the right of return," he said. "What we have to do is to reach a long-term agreement and delay the difficult subjects for later.

"I am going to say very clearly -- there are conflicts that have not been completely solved and people have learned to live with it, like Cyprus."

Mitchell, who played a key role in the 1998 Good Friday peace deal in Northern Ireland, has been spearheading President Barack Obama's hitherto ineffective efforts to get Israel and Palestinians to relaunch peace talks that were suspended in late December after the Gaza war broke out.

At a three-way summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in late September, Obama told Netanyahu and Abbas to stop dragging their feet and relaunch negotiations.

But observers on both sides expect little momentum from Mitchell's first trip to the region since the New York summit.

"It would be very surprising if there would be any significant progress. I suspect he is here mainly to babysit and try calm things down," said Mark Heller from Tel Aviv University.

Echoed Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian lawmaker: "I don't expect any change."

Since the New York meeting, several developments have sprung up as new obstacles to the relaunching of talks.

Israelis and Palestinians have traded accusations over who was responsible for stoking tensions that have led to sporadic clashes over access to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a flashpoint site holy to Muslims and Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem.

And Abbas has come under a hail of criticism from among Palestinians and across the Arab world for apparently caving in to US and Israeli pressure in agreeing not to press for a vote at the UN Human Rights Council on a damning UN report on the Gaza war.

Abbas has since backtracked, but the furore makes it difficult for him to make concessions to the United States and Israel, political analysts say.

"The credibility of the Palestinian president, as it relates to the negotiations, among the people and even within (his own) Fatah movement, has today become very shaky," said Palestinian observer Samih Shabib.

Meanwhile Netanyahu has been strengthened by the softening of the US tone on the thorny issue of settlements, with Washington no longer demanding a full freeze on new construction and the premier seen as successfully rebuffing US pressure to give way on the issue.

"Mitchell has a lot of problems because we now know that you can say no to a US president and still survive," said Eytan Gilboa, a specialist in Israel-US relations at the right-leaning Bar Ilan University.

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