Mid-East talks: Abbas and Netanyahu clear first hurdle

Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu With the leaders at last sitting together in the same room - and speaking English - the hard work begins

The Americans gave the new talks between the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister the biggest launch they could - meetings with President Obama, a dinner at the White House with the King of Jordan and the Egyptian president, and a globally televised first session at the US Department of State.

After the first private sessions, photographs were issued showing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deep in conversation.

Apparently they spoke in English. No translators, the state department said, were present.

The message was that face-to-face contact had started and might even work, though a year of effort lies ahead. And a lot more talk. The next meeting is in two weeks' time.

If you go by past history - and almost every Israeli and Palestinian I spoke to on a trip to the region last week did - then you will expect the talks to come to nothing.

After all, it has been almost 20 years since the first of several peace processes started. All the years of failure have turned this into a long-running Middle Eastern saga of lost hope.

The Americans are telling both sides that time is running out, that they cannot postpone the hard choices that making peace entails any longer.

It may be difficult, they're saying, but it will be even worse if you don't agree on the borders of a Palestinian state and decide the other big issues.

The hardest ones are the future of Jerusalem and finding justice for the millions of Palestinians whose families lost their homes in 1948 in what became Israel. At the moment there is a big gulf between the public positions of the two sides.

The first hurdle for the Americans has been surmounted. They got the two leaders together and, in the words of one official, they didn't throw any chairs at each other.

From now on it gets harder.

Hamas' grisly reminder

Here are some of the questions that need an answer.

What happens after 26 September? That is the day when Israel's partial freeze on building for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank ends. Israel says it will not be extended. The Palestinians say if it is not, they will walk away from the talks.

The Americans are working hard to find a way ahead. One suggestion is that Mr Netanyahu will say the freeze is not being extended but will assure the Palestinians privately that no new developments will be authorised.

That kind of arrangement probably would not last long, but perhaps long enough to keep Mr Abbas talking.

Each of the leaders pledged to work towards peace

What about Hamas? The Palestinian group were not invited to the talks and say they would not have come if they had been.

They have condemned the talks as a fraud. Hamas says Mr Abbas, whose electoral term has expired without a fresh poll, has no right to represent the Palestinian people.

Earlier this week, Hamas killed four Jewish settlers not far from Hebron in the West Bank. It is looking as if they did not expect to stop the talks. Instead they were sending a grisly reminder of what they are prepared to do.

'Israel's Gorbachev'

If Hamas is as capable as it claims of sustained violence despite the attentions of the Israelis and the security forces of President Abbas's Palestinian Authority, it will have what amounts to a right of veto.

Past negotiations failed because of the combination of problems at the negotiating table and the spilling of blood on the streets of Israel and the occupied territories.

At the moment the idea at the talks seems to be to ignore Hamas in the hope that a deal would be so attractive to the Palestinian people that the group would be powerless to oppose it. That is not a very robust strategy. It relies on a lot going right, quite quickly.

Key issues

The Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev, seen behind the controversial West Bank barrier, on the outskirts of Jerusalem (4 August 2010)

Will Mr Netanyahu's right-wing government veto any concessions?

It is quite likely, if concessions involve Jerusalem or occupied land his coalition partners believe should stay under Jewish control. Mr Netanyahu chose to form a right-wing coalition. If he is serious about the talks, he may need a new one, one more amenable to paying the necessary price for peace.

Is Mr Netanyahu serious? There is a debate in Israel about what exactly he wants. Some believe he is an ideologue who is just reacting to American pressure to play for time.

The talks will not get far if he sticks to the preconditions he cited when he said a year ago he wanted peace through the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But others believe he is ready to do a deal. One leading Israeli journalist recently wrote a long piece comparing him to Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader who was installed to save the Soviet Union and ended up dismantling it.

The suggestion was that Mr Netanyahu could do the same for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Obama's gamble

Israel is the strong side. It is in possession of the occupied territories and will have to give most of them up if this is going to work.

The Palestinians at the talks are weak. It will be easy, and politically cost-free, for the Americans to twist Palestinian arms. Twisting Israeli arms will become necessary too. That can be politically costly in the US.

The Obama administration is taking a gamble. The calculation is that it is worth it, that the other intractable problems in the Middle East will be easier to deal with if the process goes well.

Glory lies ahead for a president who can deliver real peace (though not the Nobel Prize, which Mr Obama already holds, somewhat prematurely).

But failure, at a time when the region is fast-changing and unstable, could make matters in the Middle East much worse.

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