Middle East: Pessimistic About Peace, Yet…

JERUSALEM – As President Obama on Wednesday initiates the ninth U.S. attempt in the last 30 years to bring about a final Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, expectations are low and pessimism is high.

It’s precisely why the talks may just succeed. That, however, may be overly optimistic. 

Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is genuine in his declaration that "Israel comes to the negotiating table out of a desire to proceed with the Palestinians to an agreement that would end the conflict and ensure peace, security and good neighborly relations," he has a mountain to climb to convince Israelis that the talks are worthwhile. 

On the eve of his departure for Washington Netanyahu had to neutralize a virulent anti-Palestinian tirade by the spiritual head of one of his main coalition partners. 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, effectively the leader of the Orthodox party Shas, declared in his weekly sermon on Saturday evening that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should be "smitten by a plague". 

Rabbi Yosef, 89, notorious for making comments which many Israelis consider outrageous, said, "Abu Mazen [Abbas] and all these evil people should vanish from the earth. God should strike him and his Palestinians, evil haters of Israel, with a plague." 

Some of his congregants responded, "Amen!" 

The future of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank added to the pre-talks pressure on Netanyahu when, during the weekend, 53 prominent Israeli actors, directors and playwrights signed a petition calling for an anti- occupation boycott on performances in a new cultural center in the major settlement town of Ariel. 

Drawing a comparison between what he called "the international de- legitimization assault on Israel," and the proposed theatre boycott, Netanyahu said, "The last thing we need during this assault is an attempt to wage boycotts from within." 

Netanyahu’s sternest test in proving that he is serious about advancing towards peace is whether he insists on Israel’s "right" to resume settlement building once a ten-month construction freeze ends on Sep. 26. 

With his right-wing coalition demanding that he not extend the settlement freeze, Netanyahu told the cabinet, "We made no such proposal to the U.S. We said that the future of our communities (in the occupied West Bank) will be discussed as one of the elements of a final status agreement. We promised the Americans nothing more." 

Until now, Netanyahu has managed to tame his hard-line coalition’s wish to plough on with settlement building. He maintained that he had succeeded in convincing the U.S. Administration — in turn, forcing the Palestinian Authority’s acquiescence — that the peace bid should start without preconditions. 

Although the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told IPS that "continuation of the settlement freeze" was "not a precondition", but rather "a condition for the success of the peace talks," the Palestinian president has time and again warned that if Israel resumes settlement building in a month’s time, that would bring the talks to an abrupt end. 

So, whence even a glimmer of hope? 

Three elements are different since the failure of previous peace bids. 

The most important positive change is a firmer U.S. stance towards the need to end the Israeli occupation. 

For all contentions in some quarters that Obama has buckled under Israel pressure (on the settlement issue), the president appears far more resolute than any of his predecessors. 

The fact that he has designated up front that the peace talks should conclude within a maximum of one year should embolden the Palestinians to give him a chance to prove that he means business. 

All the more so when the international community — as reflected in the attitude adopted by the Quartet (the U.S., the E.U., Russia and the U.N.) — supports the Palestinian position that the pre-1967 armistice lines should constitute the basis of the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state. 

The second changed factor is the attitude of the Palestinians themselves. 

During previous peace attempts, Israel was the party within the troubled relationship calling all the shots — even to the extent of adopting unilateralist positions. 

Now, however, with the political and economic backing of the international community, it is the Palestinians who are grasping the initiative by gradually creating the foundations of their state — with or without Israeli consent. 

The third and perhaps most important change is the active involvement of the Arab world in peacemaking efforts. 

King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt’s President Mubarak both accepted Obama’s invitation to join the opening of the talks. And, Erekat has stressed publicly that he expects both Jordan and Egypt to play an active role when the core issues of the conflict — borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees — are addressed. At Camp David in 2000 the Arab states stood aloof from the U.S. peace drive. 

In a rare interview on Israel public television on Saturday night, the King stressed the centrality of the Arab League’s commitment to a full-scale regional peace if the Palestinians and Israelis are able to resolve their differences. 

"I don’t think we should put a one-year target date," Abdullah said in the interview. "Why wait for one year? The longer we wait, the more we give people a chance to create violence." 

Israeli leaders continually say that the success of the one-year peace drive depends on Israel’s security concerns being fully addressed. 

Abdullah met that demand head-on: "Is it going to be fortress Israel, or are we going to have the courage to break down those walls and bring peoples together and eventually bring full security to the Israeli people?" he asked. "If Israelis and Palestinians are able to solve their problems together, then all of those elements that are trying to work for the destruction of Israel will have no longer a justification. 

"What will happen in Washington is not just about Israelis and Palestinians. It’s about Israel’s future with the Arabs, and Israel’s future with the Muslim world," the Jordanian monarch concluded.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.