Cautious Optimism For Mideast Peace Process
(AP) Israel’s prime minister and the Palestinian president have set off on a yearlong peace journey, taking to a well-trod road that has led only to failure for nearly two decades. Even so, the negotiating chess board is arranged differently this time around.
First, the Shiite Muslim theocracy in Iran has become not only an open threat to Israel but a subtle and growing worry for some of the Jewish state’s Sunni Arab neighbors. There’s a common enemy among interested parties.
Perhaps as important, there is a largely new cast of characters at these talks.
Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been a hard-liner, argu- ing that Israel cannot maintain its security under any agreement the Palestinians would accept. But as a hard-liner—much as President Richard Nixon was a bone-deep anticommunist when he made the U.S. opening to China four decades ago— Netanyahu may have the credibility among the Israeli right to make a deal.
For his part, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is in a politically life-threatening struggle to sustain his power against the radical Hamas faction. Hamas won elections and kicked Abbas’ moderate Fatah organization out of the Gaza Strip, engendering a vast schism among Palestinians. Winning guaranteed statehood for the Palestinians—if the deal is right—could hand Abbas a major political victory.
Beyond that, President Barack Obama—he made the latest talks a virtual command performance—has invested major political capital. He barely knew his way around the White House in early 2009 when he said Middle East peace was a top priority. In his very first days in office, Obama appointed George Mitchell to serve as his man in the Middle East. Mitchell carries enormous credibility as a negotiator, having played a key role in bringing Protestants and Catholics into a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
However, Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks—with Mitchell shuttling between the sides—went nowhere this summer. In the midst of a hugely difficult economic and political season at home, Obama needs some good news. Even movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace would serve him well.
None of that, of course, guarantees success for this outing, which calls for an agreement within one year.
Even the White House and State Department are keeping expectations low out of historical prudence.
Stretching back 19 years, the search for peace has lurched across the globe with locations that recall the hopes and frustrations of previous efforts—Madrid, Oslo, Washington, Maryland, Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and others.
The search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians even produced its own vocabulary: “shuttle diplomacy,” “peace process,” “framework,” “two-state solution,” “road map,” “window of opportunity.”
Two of those terms—“two-state solution” and “framework”—are floating yet again.
“They reiterated their common goal of two states for two peoples,” Mitchell said in a briefing after the first round of talks at the State De- partment on Thursday. “The parties agreed that a logical next step would be to begin working on achieving a framework agreement for permanent status.”
The latest negotiations are in grave danger, however. Both sides agreed to a second round of talks Sept. 14-15 with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitchell present. But just a few days later, Israel’s limited ban on building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is set to expire.
Abbas has said he would walk away from the talks if Netanyahu does not extend the moratorium. The Israeli leader, even should he want to continue the ban, is under heavy pres- sure inside his conservative Likud Party to free settlers to start building again.
Such construction is a dealbreaker, Abbas has declared, because it is taking away land the Palestinians envision for their state.
As a practical matter, all the issues confronting Netanyahu and Abbas have been thoroughly aired many times in many negotiations— all of which failed, sometimes with an agreement tantalizingly close.
Yet the differences this time, even though the last talks took place less than two years ago, offer glimmers of hope—a cool optimism that remains largely dependent on the risks Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas are willing to take.
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