THE latest, and most ambitious attempt to end decades of conflict in the Middle East began in Washington on Thursday of last week. This round of talks differs from previous efforts in one dramatic way: the leaders of Israel and of the Palestinians have committed themselves to conclude a “framework agreement for permanent status” within a year. This would be a tall order, even if all the circumstances were perfect. They are not.
On the positive side, President Barack Obama has at last followed up personally on a commitment made in early 2009 to make Middle East peace a top priority during his term in the White House. Arabs and Israelis who back the idea of a negotiated deal were despairing at the President’s subsequent focus on other issues at home and abroad.
Within the region, too, there are some signs of hope. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, is fighting for his political life, and therefore has a strong incentive to present to his people an agreement leading to statehood. For his part, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — as a tough, right-wing leader — could be the man needed to convince the Israeli public that compromises are necessary to safeguard the country’s long-term security.
During the Washington ceremonies, US officials were, unsurprisingly, optimistic about the chances of success — while underlining the dangers of failure. Senator George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace, emphasised that Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu had “reiterated their common goal of two states for two peoples. The parties agreed that a logical next step would be to begin working on a framework agreement for permanent status” — something that would be “more detailed than a declaration of principles, but less than a full-fledged treaty”.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warned that the new talks represented a unique and, perhaps, final opportunity for peace that would receive maximum US support: “The United States wants to weigh in on the side of leaders and people who see this as maybe the last chance for a very long time to resolve this conflict.”
The President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan were also in Washington for the opening of the new negotiations. It is understandable that the US administration wants to rally its allies in the Middle East for such an occasion.
This is fine as far as it goes. The problem is that if some of the other leaders in the region — especially of Syria and Iran, not to mention the Hamas movement that controls Gaza — fail to support any deal that might be reached, its future will be insecure.
Such misgivings, of course, are not an argument against holding peace talks. Rather, they highlight the fact that the terms of an agreement would need to be so positive and favourable to both sides that they would cut the ground from under the opposition. The chances of this happening are slight, given the enormous complexity and sensitivity of such issues as the status of Jerusalem and the right to return for Palestinians.
In the mean time, there is a worry that Hamas and other armed groups will carry out their pledge to wreck the talks through violence — the killing of four Israeli settlers on the eve of the Washington meeting was presented by Islamic militants as a portent. Iran, too, has strongly condemned the new peace initiative, while a government newspaper in Syria said that the Palestinian negotiators would face “a maze of Israeli tricks in a process that would go nowhere”.
The peace talks resume next Tuesday, and Palestinians around the world will be watching their progress carefully. The Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank — Christians and Muslims — will be looking for signs initially that Mr Netanyahu will agree to extend the moratorium on settlement expansion that runs out later this month. Palestinian negotiators say that they will walk out if he does not do so.
The fears of Palestinians — and Christians in particular — were highlighted by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, during a visit to the Holy Land which coincided with the start of the Washington talks. “Palestinian Christians are concerned about their future here and about their status in Jerusalem,” he said. “Now is the time for a just peace. The Christians here pray for that; all peoples here need it desperately.”