WASHINGTON - With a key Arab League meeting delayed until Friday, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is scrambling to keep one-month-old direct Israeli- Palestinian peace talks alive.
The stakes are high. If the talks fall apart, a number of observers believe a third intifada could break out on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem where tensions have been simmering over the demolition of Palestinian homes for some months.
A new poll of Palestinian opinion released Monday found majority support for a recent attack by Hamas that killed four Jewish settlers on the West Bank, while harassment and vandalism by settlers - including an arson attack on a mosque near Bethlehem Monday - have further stirred the pot.
Obama's special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, is currently shuttling between Arab capitals in hopes that he can rally enough diplomatic support to permit Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table he left after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank late last month.
While Arab leaders have so far been non-committal, the senior leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Abbas' own faction, Fatah, said after a Saturday meeting that Abbas should not return to the talks unless Netanyahu agrees to freeze settlements.
Washington is hoping that Netanyahu himself will indeed reverse his decision in light of the number and value of inducements the Obama administration has informally offered him if he agrees to extend the moratorium for a mere 60 days.
Over the weekend, some of Netanyahu's aides suggested that the Likud leader - who heads the most right-wing government in Israel's history - was indeed reviewing his refusal to extend the moratorium and would bring up the question at a cabinet meeting this week before the Arab League meeting, which is to be hosted by Libya.
Netanyahu was reportedly also coming under informal pressure from a number of key U.S. Jewish figures - including members of the more-hawkish leadership of the so-called "Israel Lobby" - to accept the carrots offered by Obama.
"Those are juicy carrots," one official of a major pro-Israel group told IPS. "It's pretty clear that Netanyahu's initial rejection was not well received among some of his friends here."
Those carrots, which reportedly came in the form of a "draft" letter negotiated here late last month primarily between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and a top Obama Middle East aide, Dennis Ross, include a number of items that Israel has long sought.
As disclosed last week by David Makovsky, a close associate of Ross who also co-authored a book with him about Middle East peace-making published shortly before Obama's inauguration, the offer included a pledge to support Israel's stationing of Israeli troops between any eventual Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Jordanian border to prevent arms smuggling or infiltration.
It also promised that Washington will veto any U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel over the next year and provide additional weapons systems - including missiles, aircraft, and satellites - that have not been included in previous arm packages.
Finally, the offer included a pledge not to ask Netanyahu for any further extensions of the settlement moratorium after the 60 days have expired.
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Most observers believe the content of the package was deliberately leaked to Makovsky, in order to exert pressure on Netanyahu after his initial rejection.
In addition to his close ties to Ross, Makovsky is a veteran official of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank created some 25 years ago by the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Makovsky suggested that if Netanyahu failed to accept the inducements, Washington may "explicitly adopt a position favored by Abbas, who argues that the 1967 border should be the baseline for talks, with minor modifications allowing Israel to trade for settlement blocs adjacent to its cities in exchange for land from within the 1967 border." Such a formal position on the 1967 border on Washington's part has long been sought by Arab states, as well.
The offer - and particularly Netanyahu's initial reaction - has provoked conflicting reactions both here and in Israel.
"It is hard to imagine anything Ross left out," wrote M.J. Rosenberg, a long- time observer of Israel-Arab peace efforts on his 'Foreign Policy Matters' blog. "Bibi [Netanyahu] seems not to believe that his dealings with America have to be two-way streets. He will only consider deals where the United States gives and he gets."
"[O]ne can only imagine what the U.S. president would offer Israel if it were to reach a full agreement with the Palestinians, if he agreed to give all that merely in exchange for an additional 60-day freeze," noted Orly Azulai of Israel 'Yedioth Ahronoth' newspaper. "President [George W.] Bush, in all his years of friendship with Israel, did not offer it so much in exchange for so little."
Stephen Walt, a prominent Harvard professor and co-author of the controversial 2007 book, 'The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign policy', suggested the package's generosity will deliver yet another blow to Obama's credibility as an honest broker in Arab world, coming, in particular, in the wake of a highly embarrassing retreat earlier this year from his demand for a total settlement freeze by Israel covering both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid," Walt wrote on his blog at foreignpolicy.com after the Makovsky leak. "How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months?"
The most-hawkish elements of the "Israel Lobby" - including some groups associated with the Jewish settler movement - have, on the other hand, echoed the far right in Israel by denouncing the package as either meaningless, insufficient, or a trick.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), for example, focused on the "implicit threat that if Israel doesn't take the deal, it will be punished with the corollary that the United States now conditions its commitment to Israel's security on being obeyed."
Israel's far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman echoed that concern Sunday, arguing that the offer was part of a plan "to force a permanent agreement on Israel - two states for two peoples along the 1967 borders, plus or minus three or four percent of the territory exchanged. [T]he objective of a continued freeze [is] to give the U.S. and the international community two months to come up with a solution that will be forced on Israel."
Palestinian officials meanwhile have denounced the package, saying it effectively rewards Netanyahu's refusal to extend the moratorium unilaterally.