Direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 8:55 PM

JERUSALEM - President Obama plunges into Middle East peacemaking on Wednesday with a two-day summit he hopes will be the first step in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement within a year.

But a deadly shooting in the West Bank late Tuesday underscored the threat that extremists pose to the peacemaking effort.

Four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were shot dead in a car traveling near the West Bank city of Hebron, shattering a relative calm that has prevailed in the territory as Palestinian security forces have improved their capabilities and asserted more authority in areas under their control.

Fewer attacks had led to an easing of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and improved the climate to resume peace talks. The military wing of the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, took responsibility for the shooting. All four of the dead were from the West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai, witnesses said.

Among Obama's first tasks is to convince increasingly cynical Israeli and Palestinian publics - which have grown weary after 17 years of photo-ops, handshakes and unfulfilled accords - that a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict remains possible.

Obama on Wednesday will hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II before a dinner at the White House.

On Thursday, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians - stalled for nearly two years - will be formally relaunched in a ceremony at the State Department. Officials in Jerusalem say Netanyahu and Abbas also plan to meet alone while in Washington for an icebreaker.

There are many obstacles to success, most immediate among them the looming Sept. 26 expiration of a 10-month Israeli moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements. Palestinians see such construction as a key obstacle to statehood.

Netanyahu doesn't have enough support within his government to extend the moratorium, and settler groups have said they will seek to bring down the government if he tries; Abbas says he won't negotiate with Israel if the settlement freeze ends.

"Israel will bear the responsibility for the collapse of the negotiations if they continue building settlements," Abbas said in a speech Sunday night.

Late Tuesday in response to the shooting, the Yesha Council settler group announced that it would begin construction Wednesday, before the moratorium ends.

The move could complicate Netanyahu's meetings in Washington and set up a clash between settlers and the Israeli army, which is supposed to enforce the temporary ban on construction.

"The only response that will show our resolve against terror is to commit ourselves to building," said Naftali Bennett, director general of the Yesha Council.

In a briefing Tuesday with reporters in Washington, George J. Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, said, "Our position on settlements is well known and remains unchanged."

"We've always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations," Mitchell said. "Our discussions continue with both sides, and they are consistent with and comprise in part the points that I just made."

Beyond the settlement impasse, there are questions about Netanyahu's and Abbas's capabilities and intentions.

Even if Abbas is able to negotiate a deal, there are questions about whether it would be possible to implement the agreement when the Gaza Strip is controlled by Abbas's rival, Hamas.

Meanwhile, some observers say Netanyahu's own ideology and the pressures of his right-wing coalition won't permit him to negotiate a peace deal.

"We are in the unfortunate situation where indeed the United States does feel a greater sense of urgency than the parties,'' said Robert Danin, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Both sides want to avoid being blamed for this process not moving forward."

Abbas enjoys little popular support for negotiations, which Palestinians say have failed to produce a state in the 17 years since Israel and the Palestinians signed the landmark Oslo accords at the White House.

Last week, Palestinian security forces violently dispersed a gathering in the West Bank city of Ramallah of those who oppose negotiations. "There is zero percent hope that anything productive will come out of it," Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician, said of the talks.

Abbas, too, is highly skeptical that Netanyahu will offer a deal that the Palestinians can accept. Palestinian observers say the 75-year-old Abbas is traveling to Washington only because he was coerced, not because he believes the talks will lead to an end of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

But others say Netanyahu is more apt to strike a peace deal than is widely believed.

"To me, the question is not whether [Netanyahu] will negotiate. The question is, is there enough overlap between how far he is willing to go and what Abbas will accept?" said Danin, who met frequently with Netanyahu in recent months as a U.S. representative of the Middle East peacemaking body known as the Quartet.

In briefing reporters, Mitchell said that "there is a window of opportunity, a moment in time within which there remains the possibility of achieving the two-state solution, which is so essential to comprehensive peace in the region."

"Difficult as it may be for both leaders, and we recognize that difficulty for both of them, the alternatives for them and the members of their societies pose far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future."

In 2007, President George W. Bush hosted a summit in Annapolis, Md., attended by dozens of foreign ministers to inaugurate Middle East talks that had been dormant for seven years. Since then, the economic and security climate in the West Bank have improved. Tuesday's shooting marked the first Israeli civilian casualties there from Palestinian militant attacks in eight months.

The Palestinians have a U.S.-trained security force that has improved law and order. Economic growth in the West Bank reached 8.5 percent last year thanks in part to greater freedom of movement.

Netanyahu has told his cabinet he will "surprise" the skeptics. He wants biweekly meetings with Abbas to negotiate the core elements of a deal.

The Palestinians want a sovereign state in the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel wants to retain parts of the territory where there are major Jewish settlements.

On the issue of Palestinian refugees, Israel wants them to return to a future state of Palestine; the Palestinians say they have a right to return to Israel itself.

Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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