Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: why this time might go better

Conditions may be ripe for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, some Middle East experts say. For one thing, Obama is starting the process much earlier in his tenure than some presidents.

Jim Young/Reuters
President Barack Obama makes remarks on the Middle East peace talks in the Rose Garden in the White House in Washington, on Sept. 1.

President Obama invests a chunk of his personal capital in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – something every president since Richard Nixon has done – when he begins a two-day summit Wednesday. The relaunching of direct talks is aimed at reaching a peace accord within a year.

Mr. Obama’s foray into the Middle East conflict – and pursuit of what has been called the holy grail of US diplomatic goals – has been met with considerable skepticism, both from the two principal parties as well as from some regional players.

Yet some Middle East experts with long experience in the peace process consider the moment better than what some naysayers suggest.

"This moment of opportunity may not soon come again," Obama said in the Rose Garden Wednesday afternoon. "The [two sides] cannot afford to let it slip away."

Before a formal relaunch of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks at the State Department Thursday, Obama was to hold bilateral meetings at the White House Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Subsequent meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were to be followed by a White House dinner for all the leaders.

Thursday’s direct talks are to be led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Two black clouds hovering over Obama’s attempt at Middle East peacemaking are enough for some regional experts to judge the effort doomed: deep political divisions among the Palestinians, with the radical Hamas organization in control of Gaza; and a looming Sept. 26 end to Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction.

But some more-optimistic Mideast experts have their own list of reasons to hold out hope that conditions may be ripe for progress. Their list includes new lows in violence – despite Tuesday’s attack, claimed by Hamas, that killed four Israelis in the West Bank; considerable strides by the Palestinian Authority in areas such as policing, municipal management, and economic development; and majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians favoring a two-state solution.

After a recent five-week visit to the region, David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he saw more cooperation on security matters between Israeli and Palestinian authorities than ever before.

And Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel with long experience in Mideast peace negotiations, says the improved security and political environment pave the way for the leaders to make bold moves for peace. “[T]he negotiating environment is better suited to peacemaking today than it has been at any point in the last decade,” he wrote in a recent New York Times commentary. “The prospects for peace depend now on the willpower of the leaders.”

That formula includes Obama, with some regional experts saying that progress in the talks is likely to depend as much or more on a new approach or a stark statement of expectations from the Americans than on concessions from the principals.

Expecting movement from the Israeli side simply because of some improvement in Palestinian governance is probably destined for disappointment, says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington.

“We’d all be tickled pink if we had an Israeli side that was just looking for a Palestinian interlocutor who would acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, be a good manager of state institutions, and do security well,” he said, speaking with reporters Tuesday. “But that’s not the case on the Israeli side,” he added, calling Israel a “reluctant de-occupier” with more than 500,000 citizens living on Palestinian lands.

That’s where Obama comes in, Mr. Levy argues, with a new definition of the US-Israel relationship that elevates the conclusion of a two-state accord and explains its importance from a regional perspective.

Under other presidents, Levy says, a one-year deadline for reaching a settlement could be scoffed at – as when George W. Bush launched the Annapolis process – because it generally came when the president had only a year or so left in office. But Obama’s case is different, coming so early in a first term, he says.

“It’s different when you’re in your last year of an administration,” Levy says. “But if your one-year deadline butts up against the beginning of your reelection campaign, [it] does create a different order of magnitude of self-created political pressure.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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