After nearly three decades of failed peace negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians are understandably dubious about the prospects for success of the latest round of talks, this one between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, starting in Washington on Thursday. President Obama had to drag the leaders to the bargaining table after a 20-month hiatus in face-to-face contact between the two sides. And although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II are jetting in for the launch, Hebrew and Arabic media already have dismissed the event as a "photo opportunity," a "mirage" and a meeting to give the "impression" of peacemaking.
Obama has set a deadline of one year to reach a comprehensive peace deal, but Middle East-watchers are asking if the talks will last even one month in light of the Sept. 26 expiration of Israel's moratorium on settlement construction, which Netanyahu has said he will not extend. Abbas has said he'll withdraw from negotiations if settlement expansion resumes. Abbas' rivals in the Islamic movement Hamas, of course, have branded the talks "illegitimate"; they're not even invited to the table. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partner, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the religious Shas party, said Saturday that Abbas "and all these evil people should perish from this Earth." And Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that what was needed in lieu of a one-year deadline were "lower expectations."
That hardly seems possible.
No one has illusions that making peace in the Middle East will be easy. Obama is investing significant political capital in getting the two sides together, but even he understands that talking is not necessarily the same as negotiating, let alone negotiating in good faith, and it's not yet clear which this will be.
Yet Obama is right to push. What alternative is there? Besides, talking might eventually lead to serious negotiations if the U.S. government is serious about reaching a deal and is willing to take political risks to get there. Both sides know the issues — the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, what to do about settlements and what will become of the Palestinian refugees. The contours of a deal also are generally understood. Obama's challenge is to press both sides at the table to make the painful concessions necessary to reach an agreement that creates a sovereign Palestinian state while also guaranteeing Israeli security, and to bring the outliers on board. Whether this can realistically be done in a year is certainly debatable, but this much is clear: Talking is better than not talking, because in the Middle East, the alternative is fighting.