RAMALLAH: The US relaunches Israeli-Palestinian talks this week, its third push over the past decade to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts — and this time under some of the most difficult conditions yet.
The gaps are wider than ever, distrust between the two peoples runs deep and Hamas opposed to a peace deal control half of what would be a future Palestinian state.
There’s almost no chance of a comprehensive agreement any time soon, given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard stance on concessions to the Palestinians and President Mahmoud Abbas’ weak position as representative of only half the Palestinians.
All the momentum is coming from President Barack Obama, who unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is tackling the issue early in his term and has already shown himself to be an energetic broker.
But even US officials concede they don’t expect any major breakthroughs and say simply getting the two sides to agree to a second round of talks, followed by more frequent meetings, will be a success. US officials hope a follow-up round can be held in the region, likely in Egypt, in the second week of September.
"While the parameters of an ultimate, comprehensive peace agreement are well known, we do not expect to achieve peace in one meeting," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday.
He said the US hopes to launch vigorous talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their teams of experts, with the "full participation" of the US and support from other countries.
Besides Netanyahu and Abbas, Obama is hosting Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House on Wednesday. Negotiations are to begin Thursday, with the aim of hammering out the details of a Palestinian state alongside Israel within a year.
Despite that optimistic timetable, the first crisis is expected as early as next month, when Netanyahu has to decide whether to extend a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement building on lands the Palestinians want for their state. Abbas has warned he’ll quit the talks unless the freeze continues, but Netanyahu has so far made no commitments.
Even if that first hurdle is cleared, negotiations can easily be disrupted by Abbas’ main rival, the Islamic Hamas, or by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners.
Hamas, which has run Gaza since a violent takeover in 2007, could resume rocket fire on Israel to try to derail talks. Israeli hard-liners could quit the government to put the brakes on Netanyahu, either forcing time-consuming new elections or a coalition reshuffle.
But the biggest obstacles remain the wide gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu, and Hamas’ entrenchment in Gaza.
"I don’t believe there are real prospects for an agreement in one or two years," said former Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin.
"You have an Israeli leader who is not ready, unless there is a very big shift in his ideology, to pay the … minimal price the most pragmatic Palestinian leader is demanding," Beilin said.
Even if a deal is struck, Beilin said, Abbas could not implement it without first regaining control of Gaza, at this point an impossible task.
Relaunching the negotiations under such conditions is fraught with risk.
The breakdown of Clinton’s Mideast summit in 2000 led to years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, and it took Bush seven years to try to bring the sides together again. Those talks broke off in late 2008 on the eve of Israel’s three-week war on Hamas in Gaza.
Still, the contours of an agreement have remained largely unchanged since they were first sketched by Clinton in 2000.
Under this blueprint, a Palestinian state would be established in most of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel would keep some of the largest settlements it built on occupied land, while compensating the Palestinians with a land swap. Jerusalem would be partitioned along ethnic lines and Palestinian refugees would largely resettle in a future Palestine, not in Israel.
The framework is far closer to what Abbas wants than what Netanyahu has said he is willing to give. However, in a strange reversal, the Palestinian leader had to be dragged to the table, while the Israeli prime minister insisted from the start he was eager to negotiate.
Underlying Abbas’ reluctance is the fear that Netanyahu is not serious about reaching an agreement, and that the Israeli leader wants the cover of drawn-out negotiations to grab more land for Israel by expanding settlements, already home to nearly 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Aides say Abbas only relented because he didn’t want to anger Obama and because US officials assured him Obama has a clear vision of what a final deal should look like.
Netanyahu has not unveiled a detailed peace proposal. Instead, he offered a belated endorsement of the idea of Palestinian statehood — but has not said how much land he would be willing to give up. He also insists Israel keep east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ intended capital.
Netanyahu, who for years led the struggle against his predecessors’ peace efforts, has left Israelis guessing about whether he is now ready to help give birth to a Palestinian state — or is simply trying to appease both Obama and his hard-line allies at home in hopes of staying in power.
The Israeli leader has made some gestures to the Palestinians in the past year — easing restrictions on Palestinian movement that allowed for a modest economic recovery and slowing the pace of settlement activity.
Yet Netanyahu, head of the nationalist Likud Party, has refused to pick up negotiations where they left off under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Addressing Likud members before his departure for Washington, Netanyahu said Monday that only his party has the credentials to deliver a peace deal that protects Israel’s security interests, just as it forged Israel’s historic peace agreement with Egypt three decades ago.
"True peace is not a short break between wars, it’s not a short break between terror attacks. True peace is something that persists dozens of years, that stands well for generations," he said.
Netanyahu’s intentions will become clearer when the settlement freeze ends Sept. 26.
Many in Likud are pushing for a resumption of construction and it’s unlikely Netanyahu will go against their wishes, said Zeev Elkin, a Likud legislator. "He made it clear … that he is going with the party members, not against them," Elkin told Israel Army Radio.
Abbas faces his own domestic troubles.
Over the weekend, Khalil Al-Haya, a leading Hamas figure in Gaza, threatened the negotiators, warning the Islamic group will "step on the necks of those who will give up our rights in Jerusalem and the rights of our refugees."
However, Hamas routinely sends conflicting messages, and it’s not clear if the latest threats mean Hamas has canceled a previous understanding with Abbas to allow him to negotiate without interference, provided he submits any deal to a referendum.
Skepticism about the negotiations is also widespread in the Abbas-run West Bank. He tried to assure his constituents in a televised address late Sunday that he would quit the talks if settlement construction resumes.
Hanan Ashrawi, a former negotiator, said the public has become disillusioned because with each failed round, Israeli settlements kept growing.
"The whole thing has been manipulated to become a process without substance or credibility," she said.
In Israel, the negotiations have been met with indifference.
"We’ve been there so many times, and nothing comes out of it," said Israeli author Tom Segev.
Many Israelis believe they don’t have a reliable Palestinian partner for peace, in part because they perceive Abbas as weak.
The Geneva Initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian group of former officials and negotiators who have come up with a detailed peace plan, tried to change that with a new PR campaign this week.
Palestinian officials recorded brief video clips aimed at the Israeli public. "I’m your partner," said Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief, speaking in Hebrew. "I think there is a historic opportunity, for us and for you." –Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.