Slow start to new US bid for Israeli-Palestinian peace

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Monday in a bid to reenergize the stalled peace process.

The trilateral talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fell short of any significant progress, but marked the first time in six years that the sides have discussed a two-state solution face to face.

The summit also devoted time to discussing Mr. Abbas's controversial "unity" government agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The US wanted the sides to start hashing out a political "horizon," an allusion to the principles for a final peace deal. But Abbas's new partnership with Hamas in some ways brings the sides back to square one, forcing them to focus on the Islamic militants' refusal to recognize Israel, accept peace agreements, or renounce violence.

These talks, which are the most significant US push for peace since the introduction of the "road map" peace plan in 2003, came at a time of uncertainty regarding the character of a Hamas-Fatah unity government that was agreed to earlier this month in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The Quartet – the US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia – has demanded that any Palestinian government recognize Israel, accept previous peace deals, and renounce violence, but the Hamas-Fatah unity government deal in Mecca only pledges to "respect" past peace agreements.

Inconclusive talks, vague language

The vague language of the summit communiqué reflected the awkward effort to restart negotiations for the first time since President Bush took office: "The President and the Prime Minister discussed their views of the diplomatic and political horizon and how it might unfold toward the two-state vision of President Bush."

Describing the two-hour meeting as "useful and productive," Ms. Rice said that she expects to return to the region soon, and that both she and Mr. Olmert had agreed to meet each other soon. A State Department official said there are no plans for another three-way meeting.

While Olmert and Rice are waiting for the formation of the new unity government before passing judgment, they have both said that Quartet demands must form the foundation of any peace process.

"It simply can't be the case that a political horizon can be built on a basis where one of the parties doesn't accept the right of the other to exist," she told reporters on Monday. "I haven't seen anything to date that suggests that this is a government that's going to meet the Quartet's principles."

Serious questions about the peace process

There are difficulties on the Israeli side as well.

With Olmert dogged by low public-approval ratings following Israel's stymied war effort in Lebanon over the summer, it is questionable whether Olmert himself would have the public backing to negotiate a final peace deal.

"[The talks] seemed to be pretty inconclusive, as expected. Judging by what we heard, they didn't seem to decide anything. A lot will depend on how [the new Palestinian 'unity' government] is formed," says Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of the Arab-Israeli opinion website

"Given Abbas's weakness, and given Olmert's weakness, and given the low energy level of what the [Bush] administration is ready to invest, there's no peace process there," says Mr. Alpher.

Despite the inconclusive results of the meeting, the analyst says that the summit helps the US demonstrate to its Arab allies that it is doing its best to prod the sides back to the negotiating table. The Bush administration has been accused of not being proactive enough to encourage talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israelis and Palestinians last negotiated a peace treaty in 2001, in the waning days of the Clinton administration and the early days of the Palestinian uprising.

The US introduced the "road map" peace initiative near the peak of the violence in mid-2003, but it quickly lost steam as Israelis and Palestinians failed to follow through on parallel confidence-building measures that were conditions for restarting political negotiations.

With less than two years left in Bush's tenure, it is unclear whether there is enough time for his administration to see the peace process through to a final agreement.

But some observers say that after six years of no talks, a return to consistent negotiations would be a significant achievement.

"If there is good will and a confidence-building process, we might not reach a comprehensive peace, but we could get back on track," says Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. "At least the present administration could take the credit for going from a state of confrontation and violence to dialogue."

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