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    Middle East
     Aug 29, 2009
Obama steers the peace train
By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM - It isn't formal yet, but it's bound to be soon - within the coming six weeks, Palestinians and Israelis will again sit down around the peace table.

That's the upshot of Wednesday's London meeting between United States President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, and Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mitchell is set to come to Jerusalem in a fortnight's time with the goal of finalizing an agreement on both an Israeli settlement


freeze and the consequent re-igniting of direct peace talks.

But, who's running the peace process imbroglio? The Palestinians are highly skeptical.

"Yes, we agree to a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, but that doesn't constitute the start of formal talks," is the official Palestinian position.

"What exactly will we be negotiating about?" asked Sufian Abu-Zaida, a prominent Palestinian official on Israel Radio. "You Israelis have laid down all the pre-conditions and you refuse to tackle the substantive issues."

Palestinian affairs analysts are even more damning about the prospects of the talks going anywhere.

"It is good to have hope. It is much better to be realistic. I fear that much of the talk about 'jump-starting' the peace process remains handicapped by relying on the same old techniques and approaches that have been tried many times and always failed," argued Rami Khoury, a leading commentator on Middle East affairs in his syndicated column.

"The determination of the Obama administration to push for an Arab-Israeli peace will go nowhere if the various initiatives and gestures by all concerned continue to dance around the central issues of the conflict, rather than to attack them head-on," Khoury cautioned.

The Israeli prime minister, in contrast, is very much cock-of-the-hoop.

Netanyahu has been under sniper fire from his far-right constituency about even contemplating any kind of settlement freeze. Yet, he believes he can weather that storm, especially since he's confident he has outmaneuvered what has until now been an unyielding US demand for a total halt to settlement building.

Indeed, according to both Israeli and US sources, the agreement in-the-making will not include Israeli building inside occupied East Jerusalem, and that the temporary freeze - reportedly for nine months at most - on construction in the West Bank settlements will exclude some 2,500 apartments on which building has already begun.

Netanyahu aides are also parading as "success" the US readiness to link Israel's "concession" on settlements to a more resolute US-led Western effort to curb Iran's nuclear program.

This buoyancy on the part of the Israeli leader has exacerbated Palestinian and Arab fears that, when the talks do get under way, it will again be Israel calling the shots, not the US.

"I just hope this is not a repeat of the Camp David debacle," said one Palestinian spokesperson, requesting anonymity, referring to the fruitless attempt by former US president Bill Clinton in 2000 to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli settlement which ended in failure, with Palestinians charging that Clinton had allowed Israel's then leader, Ehud Barak, to try to railroad them into an unacceptable deal.

But is the Israeli tail really wagging the US dog once more, as Palestinians have long charged, especially during the eight-year peace paralysis under the George W Bush administration?

On the face of it, there may indeed be similarities to previous US-mediated peace initiatives. Still, the current drive does hold out realistic hope that, this time, things may take a different turn and be more attuned not only to Israeli security needs, but also to Palestinian national needs:

  • Eventually, the settlement freeze might fall some way short of what Obama had originally insisted. This is, however, the first time ever that the US has managed to make peace talks absolutely conditional on an Israeli policy shift on the arch-symbol of occupation, and, what's more, by the most ultra- nationalist government Israel has ever had.
  • Even though Netanyahu insists Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem cannot be compromised, what Israel does in the occupied part of the city is now under more rigorous scrutiny than ever.
  • Because of Obama's insistence, Netanyahu has already given way - albeit grudgingly - on the vision of a two-state solution as the only way to reach a just peace. Nor has US contempt for the iniquity of continued occupation been fuzzed, as it often was by past administrations.
  • Concern for Palestinian human security has been given equal status with consideration of Israel's security.
  • The US is not content with an innocuous dance around confidence-building measures for its own sake, or with dealing with spurious questions over which side needs first to fulfill its obligations before serious negotiations can begin.
  • The US is committed, as the Palestinians insist, that talks immediately tackle the core issues - borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The US is also unlikely to be swayed by Netanyahu's demand that he will not accept the other core issues on the table unless the Palestinians accept Israel's identity as a Jewish state (Israeli exclusion of the possibility of any refugees being allowed to return to within its borders).
  • Most significantly, the Obama approach is comprehensive and all-embracing. Obama is the first US leader to embrace the Arab League peace initiative of 2002 so that getting Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace constitutes the foundation of a total regional peace. Camp David came unstuck in the reluctance of the Arab world to support a separate Palestinian-Israeli peace.

    There have been timetables in previous US-brokered peace plans. But when Washington now talks of realistically seeking a full peace within two years, it sounds anything but idle talk.

    What is even more encouraging is the lack of fanfare with which the US is tying together the knots of a comprehensive strategy. Its prospects may even be enhanced if the president's renowned high-flown rhetoric is kept further under wraps.

    The onus is still on the US to prove that it is up to the task of translating this into practical dividends.

    But, even at this early stage, there is less cause for Palestinian pessimism. And, collaterally, less reason for Netanyahu's over-arching confidence.

    Until proven otherwise, Obama is still driving this peace train.

    (Inter Press Service)

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