Mitchell, Abbas; Arafat in background picture
Mitchell, Abbas; Arafat in background pictureIsrael news photo: Flash 90

The American-mediated “indirect talks” between the Palestinian Authority and Israel began Sunday with a loud silence as both sides wait for U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell to return to the region, probably in the next 10 days. He is to leave Israel Sunday night.

The Palestinian Authority officially approved the American initiative to resume what once were described as “negotiations” in the ”peace process.”  Following years of bargaining the terms of what now is usually called the “diplomatic process,” the PA has won wide international support for all of its demands. It has the support of the Obama administration, which opposes Jewish ”settlements’ -- decades-old neighborhoods, some of which are populated by nearly 30,000 Jews -- in a large part of Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said there must be direct talks before an agreement can be reached, while PA negotiator Saeb Erekat stated in Ramallah, "The proximity talks have started.” In fact, they took a recess as Mitchell prepares to return to the United States Sunday night, presumably to map out further tactics. 

With virtually all analysts and observers saying his chances for success are low, the PA is working from the advantage that if Israel does not agree to its demands, it will wait for the right time to turn to the United Nations to pass a resolution recognizing it as an independent country.

PA concessions continue to be on the tactical front, agreeing to “proximity talks” despite Israel’s refusal to formally accept U.S. President Barack Obama’s demand for a building freeze for Jews in areas of Jerusalem that the PA claims as part of its would-be capital. Under a cloud of confusion, a general de facto building freeze on new Jewish homes is in effect in Judea and Samaria as well as parts of eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem.

Mitchell has four months in which to work, which is the time limit the Arab world has set for the talks to fail or succeed. It also coincides with the approximate end of Israel’s 10-month temporary building freeze on new Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria.

President Obama is expected to continue to move aggressively to force both sides to accept an agreement, which from the PA side would include sovereignty over all of the land restored to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

There also are growing suspicions that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor party that is in the Netanyahu government, has forged a close political friendship with President Obama, who would prefer a new coalition government that includes the Kadima party, headed by Tzipi Livni.