U.S. offers to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; A02

President Obama will embark on his deepest foray into Middle East peacemaking next month when he hosts Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to achieve what his predecessors could not: a deal to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel and end the two sides' bitter conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Friday that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected in Washington on Sept. 2 for what will be the first face-to-face negotiations between the sides in two years. Clinton said she thinks a deal could be reached within a year.

The announcement marked a small victory for Obama, who had pledged to address the conflict early in his term but faces a daunting challenge in pulling off an agreement.

"Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles," Clinton said. "The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere."

The first big test for the renewed peace process will probably be the scheduled expiration Sept. 26 of a 10-month freeze by Israel on new settlement construction in the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967. Israel has sought to ensure that the United States will not call openly for a continuation of the freeze.

In a nod to those concerns, Clinton said talks "should take place without preconditions." But Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell hinted that Netanyahu would be under pressure to extend the freeze, saying that both sides should "refrain from taking any steps that are not conducive to making progress." Mitchell has been conducting shuttle diplomacy between the antagonists for months.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said it is vital the moratorium be continued.

"The non-extension of the moratorium on settlements will mean that we will not have negotiations. It's as simple as this," Erekat told CNN. The Palestinians see the West Bank as the main part of their future homeland, along with the Gaza Strip.

Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the U.S. government had pressed to launch talks soon "to prevent a crisis in September" when the freeze expires.

He described the outlook for the negotiations as grim, however, saying that Netanyahu will not offer as many concessions to the Palestinians as former Israeli premiers did.

Another difficulty is the split between the West Bank and Gaza. The latter is run by Abbas's rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas, which the United States and others label a terrorist group.

Many say that the split undercuts Abbas's ability to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal. In the run-up to Friday's announcement, rocket fire from Gaza targeting Israel has continued sporadically. Hamas on Friday rejected the idea of new peace talks.

Hany al-Masri, who has been trying to negotiate reconciliation with Hamas on Abbas's behalf, said resuming negotiations is "political suicide" for the Palestinian president.

"This will continue to weaken him, not only in front of his people, but inside the [Palestine Liberation Organization], because Israel will continue to build settlements," Masri said.

Mitchell was more optimistic. Appearing with Clinton at the State Department, he noted that both Netanyahu and Abbas had said they believed a peace accord could be concluded within a year.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the Israeli side was "coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement . . . that will protect Israel's national security interests." While there was no statement Friday from Abbas regarding the U.S. invitation, negotiator Erekat publicly expressed support. "We expect a yes" from the Palestinians as soon as their leadership met, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords that formally launched the peace process, there have been several Palestinian-Israeli summits, none of which produced a final agreement.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the presence of a right-wing leader at the helm of Israel's government could be a plus in the new talks.

In the past, "when centrists or leftist Israeli governments negotiated, the right wing was always opposed," said Indyk, now director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "The fact that now Prime Minister Netanyahu, a right-wing leader, is committed to a one-year negotiation to resolve all of the issues . . . is important," he said.

Another potential plus, analysts said, is Obama's active involvement. However, "Obama must infuse the process with a real sense of hope," according to Robert Danin, a former aide to Tony Blair, the representative of the Quartet peacemaking group. "He must overcome the peace-process fatigue from which both Israelis and Palestinians suffer."

Obama is scheduled to host a dinner with Netanyahu and Abbas on Sept. 1. They will be joined by Blair, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II, who have shepherded the fitful peace process for years.

The Quartet -- the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States -- issued a parallel statement inviting both sides to resume direct talks.

The probable outlines of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement are well known. Israel would give up most of the West Bank; the Palestinians would allow some Israeli settlements to remain.

Jerusalem would serve as the capital of both states. And people of Palestinian origin living abroad would have the right to return to the state of Palestine, but not to Israel, except in special cases.

"The degree of difficulty is not in finding the zone of agreement. The degree of difficulty lies in political leaders deciding that they're going to make the deal," Indyk said.

The two sides will decide in Washington on an agenda for their talks, including which issues to tackle first and where future negotiations will occur, Mitchell said.

(See coverage of a secret Israeli agency's efforts to scuttle office projects in Jerusalem.)taff writer Scott Wilson in Martha's Vineyard and special correspondent Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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