Expectations low as Obama administration prepares to plunge into direct Mideast peace talks

By Matthew Lee, AP
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Expectations low for round of Mideast talks

WASHINGTON — After months of shuttle diplomacy, the Obama administration is set to plunge into a new round of Mideast peacemaking, bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for face-to-face talks for the first time in nearly two years.

But already low expectations for the talks were jolted even before they began when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on an Israeli vehicle traveling in the West Bank killing four passengers in an attack claimed by the militant Hamas movement. Israeli officials said the shooting was an attempt to sabotage the discussions.

With U.S. officials allowing that success in Thursday’s negotiations may be defined simply as an agreement to meet again, President Barack Obama was getting ready to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.

The goal is to formalize a peace agreement in a year’s time that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. But with the two sides far apart on all the key issues, the going is expected to be slow and fraught with difficulties.

Tuesday’s deadly shooting near the town of Hebron was a reminder of the fragility of the situation.

“We will not let the blood of Israeli civilians go unpunished. We will find the murderers, we will punish their dispatchers,” Netanyahu said Tuesday evening as he met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Washington hotel. “We will not let terror decide where Israelis live or the configuration of our final borders. These and other issues will be determined in negotiations for peace that we are conducting.”

Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said earlier that the attack would not change this week’s summit, but served to stress the security concerns that Israel plans to make a central issue in the talks.

“There is no change. We are committed to peace,” Regev said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s office issued a statement charging that the attack was aimed at undermining his government’s effort to build international support for “the Palestinian position and ending the (Israeli) occupation.”

Clinton said that halting such terror and destruction “is one of the reasons why the prime minister is here today, to engage in direct negotiations with those Palestinians who themselves have rejected a path of violence in favor of a path of peace.”

She added: “We pledge to do all we can always to protect and defend the state of Israel and to provide security to the Israeli people. That is one of the paramount objectives that Israel has and the United States supports in these negotiations.”

Ahead of Thursday’s sessions, Clinton and the administration’s Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, met Tuesday with Abbas and Netanyahu as well as the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the representative of the “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Clinton’s talks were intended to clarify where the parties stand as they head into the talks, which the administrations wants to mark “the reinvigoration of intensive process.”

“We want to see not just a successful relaunch tomorrow, but an understanding that, going forward, the leaders will meet on a regular basis,” he said.

On Wednesday, Abbas and Netanyahu will meet separately with Obama. Then, joined by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they will attend a White House dinner intended to set the stage for the launch of formal talks a day later at the State Department. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab nations with peace deals with Israel.

One major immediate challenge will be the Palestinians’ demand that Israel extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank that expires on Sept. 26.

Netanyahu, who faces pressure from his right-wing Likud Party and hawkish coalition partners to resume building inside West Bank settlements when the freeze ends, has made no such pledge. And, Palestinian officials have warned that without one, the talks in Washington may be nothing more than a two-day excursion to the U.S. capital.

Beyond the settlements, Israel and the Palestinians face numerous hurdles on resolving the other issues of contention, notably the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

At the same time, internal Palestinian divisions that have led to a split between Abbas and his West Bank-based administration and Hamas, which controls Gaza, will complicate the talks. Hamas is not part of the negotiations and has said the talks will be futile.

American officials are hopeful they can at least get the two sides to agree to a second round, likely to be held in the second week of September in Egypt. That could be followed by another meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly near the end of the month, they said.

Netanyahu has said he would like to meet regularly with Abbas, perhaps every two weeks, as lower-level talks expected to convene in working groups continue. During that period, Clinton and Mitchell would be available to offer suggestions to help the parties overcome obstacles they encounter, the officials said.

Indeed, Abbas told reporters accompanying him to Washington on Tuesday that he hopes for an active U.S. role with the administration presenting “bridging proposals” to close gaps.

But that formula has failed in the past, notably when former President Bill Clinton was unable to get the two sides to agree to a peace deal at Camp David in 2000, and then again when former President George W. Bush tried his hand at resolving the conflict starting with the Annapolis conference in 2007.

Netanyahu has refused to pick up where the Annapolis negotiations left off in December 2008 between Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was more moderate than Netanyahu.

Before leaving for Washington, Netanyahu told his Likud Party that he would seek “real arrangements on the ground” that ensure the security of Israelis.

Associated Press writer Matti Friedman contributed to this report.

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