Israeli-Palestinian talks: How to keep saboteurs at bay

Even before the Israeli-Palestinian talks began Sept. 2, an attack by Hamas and a death call by a prominent Jewish rabbi have signaled that extremists want to derail the negotiations. Benjamin Natanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas need to rally the center.

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    At a State Department event marking the start of negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton watches.


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In coming weeks, if all goes well, the spotlight in the Middle East will be on direct talks that started Thursday between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The two sides promise to meet every two weeks.

But beware. Sabotage of the talks began even before they were launched in Washington. The likely aim? The derailing of any peace deal that creates a Palestinian state, a result known as the two-state solution.

The most serious attempt came from Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. It took credit for the killing of four Israelis Aug. 31 – leaving seven children orphaned – in the West Bank.

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On the Israel side, the spiritual leader of the fourth-largest political party in the governing coalition, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas, called on God to kill the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

With opponents like these, can the center hold as these talks go on?

For Middle East watchers, the formal talks between Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not be the decisive act. Rather, any informal communications with extremists in their respective camps will likely determine whether a deal can be reached.

The attack by Hamas does not give much hope that Abbas can bring his militant Islamist foes to support either the talks or any eventual deal. And Mr. Netnanyahu, by not immediately condemning the outrageous comment by Rabbit Yosef, may be signaling that he will not risk breaking apart his conservative political coalition to make compromises (starting with extending his freeze on expansion of Jewish settlements).

Public opinion matters more than ever right now. If polls show widespread support of the talks and a two-state solution among both Israelis and Palestinians, then extremists stand less chance of playing the spoiler. Abbas and Netnanyahu need to quickly show their peoples that these talks can bring worthwhile results. And Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states need to step up, showing the Palestinians the potential benefits of peace, while the West must continue its support of rebuilding the economy in the West Bank.

Staying one step ahead of saboteurs will require concerted coordination by those desiring peace. And that is where the spotlight should be.

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