Mideast foes praise envoy

This Palestinian youth was among many who clashed with Israel riot police Saturday during a protest to mark the upcoming 63rd anniversary of “nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” the term Palestinians use to mark the events leading to Israel’s founding in 1948.

JERUSALEM -- Masked Palestinians whirling slingshots clashed with Israeli riot police in two Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem on Saturday after the shooting death of a teenage stone thrower.

It was a sign of rising tensions on the eve of Palestinian commemorations of their uprooting during Israel's 1948 creation.

The possibility of escalation comes at a critical time for U.S. Mideast policy. President Barack Obama's envoy to the region, George Mitchell, resigned Friday, and Obama may now have to retool the administration's incremental approach to peacemaking.

Mitchell held the job for more than two years, but had little to show for it. Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in September, but were quickly derailed by Israel's refusal to comply with an internationally mandated construction freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, war-won territories Palestinians want for their state.

Israelis and Palestinians on Saturday praised Mitchell and blamed each other for the failure of his mission.

Palestinian officials said Mitchell was destined to fail because of what they said is a faulty U.S. premise -- that Israelis and Palestinians are equals who can be nudged by a persistent mediator.

As the occupier, Israel holds all the cards, and only U.S. pressure on Israel will yield results, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran negotiator.

"Mitchell was good and skillful, but what could his personal skill have done as long as he didn't get the required support from the administration to exert the required pressure?" Shaath said Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Mitchell by phone Saturday.

Netanyahu expressed sorrow over Mitchell's decision to step down and "over the fact that the Palestinians refused to come to the talks that Mitchell worked to promote," according to a statement by Netanyahu's office.

"They insisted on endless preconditions that hindered his work and, at the end of the process, joined Hamas," Netanyahu said.

Despite the deadlock, dramatic changes in the region in recent months, including democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and a Palestinian unity deal between rivals Hamas and Fatah, have been shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal restored President Mahmoud Abbas' position as the leader of all Palestinians, including those in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and strengthened his bid to sidestep a negotiated agreement with Israel and instead seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Abbas told the Rome daily La Repubblica that if Israel doesn't want to negotiate with a new Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, "we'll go to the U.N. in September and ask if our people, which is again united, finally has the right to be a state."

With much at stake, it appears unlikely that Abbas' security forces will allow today's commemorations to get out of hand.

The day marks the anniversary of what the Palestinians call the "nakba," Arabic for "catastrophe," referring to their displacement during the Mideast war over Israel's May 15, 1948, creation.

At the time, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out by Israeli troops, losing land and homes. The dispute over the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million people, remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Several Facebook groups have called for launching a third uprising against Israel, starting today, and urged supporters to march from Palestinian towns to Israel military checkpoints in the area.