Working toward an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough?

Netanyahu sending top peace negotiator to US ahead of Obama visit

Yitzhak Molcho, who has held countless meetings with Palestinian officials, flies to Washington next week

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy to negotiations with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Molcho, is flying to Washington next week to discuss with US officials how to advance the peace process ahead of President Barack Obama’s imminent visit.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV, which on Tuesday broke the news that Obama would make his first presidential visit to Israel once Netanyahu forms his new government, reported Wednesday that the prime minister is sending an advance team to the US to prepare the ground.

National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror will head out to deal with technical aspects of the visit, while Molcho — the trusted aide to the prime minister who has held countless barely publicized meetings with Saeb Erekat and other Palestinian negotiators in recent years — will deal with the more substantive preparations, the news report said. Molcho has also frequently represented Netanyahu in talks with US officials on the Palestinian issue.

Molcho’s visit bolsters indications that Obama’s trip to Israel — agreed upon during a phone conversation between the president and the prime minister last week — is intended to seal some kind of breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian contacts.

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said earlier Wednesday that Obama wants to host a summit between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the visit, which is tentatively set for late March or early April. Ayalon said he was “certain” preparations for such a summit were already under way.

Obama is also to visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan, and might seek to bring Jordan’s King Abdullah to a four-way summit, Israeli media speculated on Wednesday evening.

Netanyahu has notably focused in recent days on a desire to revive peace talks. He appealed to Abbas to meet with him immediately after the January 22 elections, and vowed on Tuesday in the Knesset to steward a “prudent” effort at progress with the Palestinians.

He has also made a relentless effort to encourage former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of the new Hatnua party, to join his coalition, and was reported Wednesday to have secured her agreement in principle to do so. Livni was the only party leader to make the imperative for progress on the Palestinian issue the key focus of her election campaign.

Netanyahu also had Molcho resign from his Likud-Beytenu party’s coalition negotiating team after Molcho was advised that he could not serve on that panel and remain the prime minister’s special envoy to negotiations with the Palestinians.

For their part, the Palestinians Wednesday welcomed news of the Obama visit, with a spokesman for Abbas saying he hoped the trip would result in the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Abbas himself, in Cairo, castigated Israel for expanding settlements, and said he would turn to any international forum open to him to seek a halt to settlements if Israel did not change its policy.

Abbas has demanded an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for talks with Israel. The US is said to be pushing for talks without preconditions — which has been Netanyahu’s demand.

Interviewed on Channel 10 on Wednesday, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro reiterated that the Obama visit was a sign of unshakable US-Israel relations and an opportunity for “consultations” on key regional issues, notably including Iran’s nuclear drive, the collapse of the Assad regime, and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

The US was anxious to advance toward “a solution of two states for two peoples,” Shapiro said, and that could “only be achieved through direct negotiations.” The Obama administration wanted to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations, he said, but he cautioned against exaggerated expectations “in the course of one visit.”

White House advance logistic teams are already in Israel, and on Wednesday called in at the president’s residence, one of the likely stops for Obama. Reports said the itinerary for the visit was still being shaped, and that news of the trip had leaked out well before the administration had intended to publicize it.

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