Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Why are they resuming now?

The short answer may be that an Israeli freeze on settlement construction is set to expire soon. But other Israeli-Palestinian factors may be at work, too.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefs reporters on the Middle East Peace Process at the State Department Briefing Room in Washington Friday.

Israelis and Palestinians will resume direct peace talks in Washington on Sept. 2, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Friday.

The goal of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be to wrap up “final status” issues and produce an agreement leading to two sovereign states living side by side in peace, US officials said.

“Past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again, because the cause is noble and just and right for all concerned,” said George Mitchell, US special Middle East peace envoy.

But why now? After all, a restart of direct contact between these bitter adversaries has been a primary foreign-policy goal of the Obama administration since the day it took office. What did it take to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree once again to sit down at the same table?

The short answer may be a deadline. The Israeli government’s partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank is set to expire on Sept. 26. The White House has pushed hard to get talks going before this date.

The Israeli right is pressing hard to resume larger-scale settlement building. Palestinians may well react to such a development with fury. Unless peace talks are already moving forward by late September, uproar over settlements might well ensure they would not resume for a long, long time.

“We are well aware that there remains mistrust between the parties, a residue of hostility developed over many decades of conflict,” Mr. Mitchell said.

The longer answer as to why talks are resuming is more complicated, says Anthony Cordesman (CSIS), holder of the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Regional allies are subtly pushing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toward the table – and Mr. Abbas needs to demonstrate that he is more important than Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Israel has toned down its rhetoric in recent weeks. Mitchell, a veteran of tough peace talks in Northern Ireland, is working as hard as he can to get the Middle East parties started.

“It’s a combination of all these factors,” Mr. Cordesman says.

At issue in the talks will be some of the toughest questions in modern diplomacy. They include the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the status of settlements, and the rights of Palestinian refugees.

It’s unlikely any of these would be wrapped up quickly. But it’s possible that talks could make progress nonetheless.

Actual talking would be a good start. Given the history of distrust between the parties, active and ongoing dialogue would be a symbol that things are going well, says Cordesman of CSIS.

Other good signs would include demonstrations of flexibility by either side, overt encouragement by Saudi Arabia or other regional Palestinian allies, and the proffering by the United States of bridge proposals intended to help the parties reach agreement.

“If the US is confident enough to put forth proposals, it means both sides will have probably accepted them, at least in part,” Cordesman says.

Under the agreement struck by the US, President Obama will hold his own, separate discussions with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu on Sept. 1. Then, the White House will host a dinner for the visitors.

The next day, Secretary Clinton will bring Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu together for the first formal talks since December 2008. At that point, the parties themselves will decide whether any more meetings will be held, and where.

Any further talks are likely to be held in the region, perhaps in Egypt. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will attend the September meetings in the US, along with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the “Quartet” of nations and organizations pushing Middle East peace – the US, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.

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