December 1, 2009

Special Envoy George Mitchell and President Obama (AP)

"We must continue to urge, to encourage, and to persuade the leaders on both sides that compromises— difficult though they may be—are in the long-term interests of their people. The alternative is to accept endless conflict, never-ending disagreement, and the absence of opportunity for all the people of the region."

What is the significance of the Israeli government’s announcement on a settlement construction freeze in the West Bank? What are your next steps now that the Israeli government has made this announcement?

The moratorium announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu on settlements is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help move Israelis and Palestinians toward an agreement on the outstanding territorial issues. For the first time, an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. While under the moratorium those buildings under construction will be completed, the number of buildings under construction will decline since, as each new building is completed, there will not be a new building started. So, the implementation of the moratorium will mean much less settlement construction than would occur if there is no moratorium.

With regard to next steps, we want to see the resumption of negotiations on permanent status issues as soon as possible. We intend for these negotiations to be time limited, at the end of which all permanent status issues will be resolved, the state of Palestine will be established, there will be an end to the conflict, and Israel will finally have secure and recognized borders and normal relations with its neighbors. Our hope is that, during these negotiations, there will be a resolution of the border issue so that Israelis will be able to build what they want within Israel and Palestinians will be able to build what they want within Palestine.

As Secretary Clinton said on November 25, ‘We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.’

Palestinian officials have said that there is nothing new in this announcement and many Arab countries complain that the United States could not even get the Israelis to freeze settlements so how will it get Israel to make further concessions. What is your response to these statements and how can this be a helpful tool if it does not bring the Palestinians to the table?

There can be no absolute guarantee in advance of negotiations as to what will occur during the course of those negotiations. We must continue to urge, to encourage, and to persuade the leaders on both sides that compromises—difficult though they may be—are in the long-term interests of their people. The alternative is to accept endless conflict, never-ending disagreement, and the absence of opportunity for all the people of the region. Of course, not everyone gets everything they want in a negotiation, and there must be a willingness on everyone’s part to give more than they want to give and to accept less than they want to receive. With time, with patience, and with courageous leadership, however, such compromises can be reached for one overriding reason: It is in the best interest of the region’s people—Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. The next generation should not have to live through what the present leadership has endured, and we are determined that peace can be achieved.

The President and the Secretary of State have been clear about our commitment both to Israel’s security and to the two-state solution based on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state with contiguous territory. This commitment is unwavering and in the national security interests of the United States.

You’ve spoken about multiple levels of negotiations, whether bilateral, multilateral, or back-to-back between the U.S. and each of the parties. Can you tell us more about what kind of negotiations you envision if you can get the parties to the table?

We have always intended for negotiations to proceed on a variety of tracks. These will include high-level direct talks to establish a framework for the negotiations and set a positive atmosphere in which they can proceed; parallel talks between the U.S. and Israel and the U.S. and the Palestinians on key issues, such as security; and lower-level direct talks in which negotiators work through the details of the issues. In the current environment, we think it makes sense to explore a re-launch of negotiations through a mix of these tracks.

The U.S. will play an active and sustained role in helping the parties to reach their shared objective of the two-state solution. Our view, which Secretary of State Clinton expressed, is that their positions are not mutually exclusive. We are committed to a viable, independent and contiguous Palestinian state and a Jewish state of Israel with secure and recognized borders.

Critics have said that the administration’s singular focus on a settlement freeze harmed chances of negotiations and put President Abbas out on a limb from which he could not climb off. What was the rationale for this strategy and why has the administration continued to focus on a settlement freeze?

A freeze on settlement activity is an Israeli obligation under the Roadmap, and the United States—as well as the Quartet—has long called on all parties to uphold their obligations. We suggested all parties—Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states—take steps to improve the atmosphere for negotiations. These steps can be a valuable contribution to achieving our goal of successful negotiations that result in a two-state solution. They are, however, a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. We have never viewed these steps as pre-conditions to the resumption of negotiations.

Your requests of Arab states to make steps toward normalization in support of the Arab Peace Initiative also appear not to have yielded results. What kinds of steps can different Arab states take and what would the role of the Arab states be during the negotiation process?

We asked Arab governments to take steps toward normalization with Israel to demonstrate that they are serious about the Arab Peace Initiative; that a better future for all of the region’s people is possible; and that, in the context of peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon, Israel would assume its rightful place in the region. These steps included re-opening of diplomatic and trade offices, an expansion of political and non-political contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, and an increase in trade and commercial ties, among other similar actions. We also are calling for a return to an active multi-lateral or regional track with the return of negotiations between the parties.

There has been a lot of talk, particularly around the Palestinian government’s plan, of building up the institutions of a Palestinian state. Is your team working on that aspect, as well?

Fundamental to our goal of achieving a peaceful Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, we must pursue political, economic and security tracks simultaneously and in integrated fashion. It is critical to match our efforts to restart negotiations and to move discussions meaningfully on the political track with efforts to build the Palestinian state from the ‘bottom up.’ This means showing average Palestinians immediate and tangible benefits in helping them get goods to market, children to school, and themselves to jobs. To do so, they must be able to live in a system of law and order, functioning and sustaining institutions, and with a degree of assured movement and access for people and goods. In a sense, Prime Minister Fayyad’s program for the PA, released in August, 2009, integrates aspects of the ‘top-down’ political/negotiating track and ‘bottom-up’ economic/security/institutional development track, given the degree of cooperation and interaction between Palestinians and Israelis required on both tracks. The U.S. joined other donors at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting in September in endorsing the PA plan and committing to support the PA’s institution-building approach. We are working to ensure that our assistance efforts match the intentions of this plan and are leveraged to meet our shared objectives to the fullest extent possible.

We spoke to Quartet Representative Tony Blair last week and he argued for a different approach to Gaza that would allow in more goods, increase reconstruction efforts and help the population, without supporting Hamas. What do you think can be done about Gaza?

We have consistently called for an increase in humanitarian and reconstruction goods into Gaza; the normal operation of the crossings, consistent with the 2005 Agreement on Access and Movement; an end to the trafficking of weapons, consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 1860; and the return of Palestinian Authority control, the legitimate government of the Palestinian people. Our intensive efforts to reach these objectives are ongoing.

Your team is also tasked with restarting Israeli-Syrian negotiations and both sides recently made positive signs toward such a move. What is the prospect of resuming talks on the Syrian track? How do these efforts tie in with the administration’s policy toward Syria and with the broader regional strategy for the Middle East?

President Obama is committed to comprehensive Middle East peace. Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian core of the conflict, ‘comprehensive peace’ means Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace, as well as normal peaceful relations between Israel and all of the Arab states.

President Obama has directed that we engage Syria diplomatically. His objective is to assess Syria’s readiness to improve the U.S.-Syria bilateral relationship so that Syrian policies and actions that have been problematic for successive U.S. administrations will change in ways that permit the relaxation and eventual elimination of U.S. economic and political sanctions. If the U.S. and Syria were to share a substantially common regional strategic outlook the implications for Middle Eastern political stability and economic progress would be quite positive.

The key problem affecting the U.S.-Syria relationship is Syrian support of terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah and Hamas. If Syria truly wants a better relationship with the United States, and a stable, prosperous future for its people, it must end its support for terrorist groups and move toward resolution of its conflict with Israel through peaceful negotiations.

We are encouraging Syria and Israel to re-engage in negotiations as soon as possible. We have offered to facilitate their discussions in any way they see fit. We recognize there will be a major U.S. role in helping them implement a peace treaty. We intend to continue encouraging the Parties to engage by helping them come to agreement on certain understandings that would enable each to have a positive and compelling idea of what peace between them would look like once it is achieved.

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“We knew at the outset that the task would be difficult. We acknowledged that publicly and privately. We knew this would be a road with many bumps— and there have been many bumps—and that continues to this day. But we are not deterred. We are, to the contrary, determined more than ever to proceed to realize the common objective, which we all share, of a Middle East that is at peace with security and prosperity for the people of Israel, for Palestinians, and for all the people in the region. We will continue our efforts in that regard, undeterred and undaunted by the difficulties, the complexities or the bumps in the road.”—George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu, September 29, 2010

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