Arab News
August 22, 2010 - 12:00am

When Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu come face to face for dinner and talks in Washington, we know where they’re coming from. They will meet a decade after the last real final-status talks, 20 months after the last direct talks and after around three months of largely futile indirect negotiations.

Beyond that Sept. 2 date, it’s anybody’s guess where Abbas and Netanyahu will be heading. If the Obama administration wants peace within a year, there will need to be more substance soon. Prospects of a comprehensive deal are slim as serious disagreements exist on the core issues. A withdrawal from occupied lands, the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied territory, the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the right of return will be difficult to overcome, mainly because of the man at the Israeli helm.

Since winning election last year, Netanyahu has given few signs that he is willing to make the tough concessions demanded by the Palestinians and the international community. He says he will not give up east Jerusalem and has not talked about the possibility of a broad withdrawal from the West Bank. And he makes it appear that the hard-liners he leans on will bring his government down should he offer the Palestinians anything more than a cup of tea. This has made the Palestinians extremely leery about talking to the Israeli leader.

Meanwhile, Abbas has his own set of domestic political complications to think of. He represents only about half the Palestinian people. The other half takes its orders from Hamas which can impede or facilitate any peace deal and which immediately condemned this new US-sponsored initiative. Abbas, already weakened by Hamas’ takeover of Gaza three years ago, rightly fears a failed peace process could further damage his standing.

The conditions for these talks are not right. For instance, the first real test comes all too soon, when the Israeli government’s moratorium on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank comes to an end on Sept. 26. Running in favor of Netanyahu and going contrary to Palestinian demands that the talks be contingent on a temporary freeze on settlements, the talks will be held without preconditions.

Still, left to their own devices, Palestinian and Israeli leaders will never make progress on their own. It was the Obama administration that insisted on the direct-talks format as the way forward, so the ball will now be in their court. But to help ensure that the new initiative does not peter out like past efforts, the US administration must create sustainable momentum. It needs a plan, and unless US officials are keeping their cards close to their vest, it looks for now as though they do not have one. The US is prepared to submit bridging proposals if the two sides fail to make progress but that will simply not be enough.

So, starting direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a small step but it could become a significant one. For now, though, it looks more form than substance which is why skepticism is high and expectations are low.


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