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Friday, September 18, 2009

A fruitless week of shuttle diplomacy in Middle East peace talks. Mitchell returns empty-handed.

President Obama had hoped to go to his first United Nations meeting next week with at least one diplomatic coup: a plan to restart the long-stalled Middle East peace talks, to be announced in a three-way meeting with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But after a fruitless week of shuttle diplomacy, his special envoy, George J. Mitchell, returned to the United States on Friday night without an agreement on freezing construction of Jewish settlements and amid fresh signs of differences on the basis for peace negotiations. Mr. Obama now faces the prospect of a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, that some say will be little more than a photo opportunity, one that will only underscore how elusive an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is.
The failure of Mr. Mitchell to nail down an agreement with Israel on freezing settlements, which the administration views as vital for successful talks, does not mean that Mr. Obama will not ultimately succeed. Some experts predict that Mr. Netanyahu, a shrewd negotiator, will strike a deal directly with the president, though that seems unlikely to happen before world leaders gather Wednesday for the United Nations General Assembly.
But Mr. Mitchell’s travails — he also faces resistance from Arab countries in making diplomatic gestures toward Israel — show that on yet another front Mr. Obama’s policy of engagement is proving to be a hard sell. If an agreement just to start talking is out of reach, hammering out the details of a comprehensive peace deal seems all the more daunting. (continues here at NYT)

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