RAMALLAH – Something is happening with the Middle East conflict, but it is hard to say what. A breakthrough appears to be at hand, though all the parties still seem to be clinging to their traditional positions. The Arab League gave the go-ahead to indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks, and the various Palestinian leadership forums have approved the resumption of talks. Even the usually boisterous Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has toned down his rhetoric, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave an optimistic interview to Israel TV.
But Israel has not publicly agreed to the American and Palestinian request to rescind the settlement construction in Jerusalem approved during US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel. On the contrary, Israeli officials, denying the Palestinians’ assertion that a secret US-Israel agreement exists, clearly intend to continue building Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. So what is going on?
For starters, we are again moving into what Henry Kissinger called the realm of “constructive ambiguity.” Palestinians have been assured via a message from President Barack Obama, delivered by his special envoy George Mitchell, that the Israelis will not carry out any “provocations” during the coming four months of indirect negotiations. Pressed to clarify, the Palestinians admitted that there is no written promise to this effect.
But, on a recent trip to Israel, White House adviser Dan Shapiro is said to have been reassured that the Israelis will not embarrass their American friends. In exchange, Shapiro handed the ultra-orthodox leader of Israel’s Shas party an invitation to the White House. Mitchell gave a similar invitation to Abbas.