Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a new round of peace talks, a move that follows months of intense US diplomacy and marks a rare moment of success for the Obama administration’s year-long effort to stabilise the region.
The latest talks follow an unusually long and barren period for Middle East diplomacy, marked by the Gaza war, rising disillusionment on both sides and a power shift in Washington.
There is, however, widespread doubt that the new peace effort will produce a breakthrough, and some analysts are warning that another diplomatic failure could plunge the Middle East into a new cycle of violence and bloodshed.
For the first time in almost 20 years of peace talks, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will not meet face-to-face, instead relying on a US mediator to shuttle between the parties.
Analysts and diplomats say this unusual format reflects the profound mistrust that exists between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the deep gulf that separates the two sides on substantial issues such as the future status of occupied East Jerusalem.
Complicating matters further is a disagreement on the scope and meaning of the indirect talks: Israel sees the current phase as mere preparation for face-to-face talks, while the Palestinians are keen to keep the US closely involved for as long as possible.
These tensions were on full display on Sunday. Speaking at the weekly meeting of the Israeli cabinet, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, said: “Peace cannot be made from a distance or by remote control, especially given that we and the Palestinians are neighbours.”
He added that it was “inconceivable” that Israel would decide on critical issues “without sitting together [with the Palestinians] in the same room”.
Palestinian officials, by contrast, warned that they would consider holding direct talks only if Israel committed itself to freezing construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinian fury over the continuing expansion of settlements had torpedoed an earlier US effort to restart peace talks.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, dropped his opposition on Saturday, only after he received the backing of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation for the different Palestinian political factions.
The Arab League voiced its support for the peace effort early last week. But Hesham Youssef, a senior official at the Arab League, suggested there was little enthusiasm for the talks: “We do not feel that the Israeli establishment as a whole is willing to achieve peace, or their idea is an Israeli peace, not a just and fair and durable peace. We firmly believe they are not serious,” he said.
Aaron David Miller, a former US official who was closely involved in earlier peace-making efforts, had little hope of a diplomatic break-through: “The gaps on the core issues are pretty significant.” However, Mr Miller argued that the talks would allow Washington more time to assess the situation and consider its next steps: “The proximity talks are a device to allow the administration to make a decision on whether or not to put its own [peace] plan on the table,” he said.
Several Palestinian and Arab officials argue that a US-imposed peace plan offers the best hope for resolving the conflict. Israel, on the other hand, is deeply opposed to such a step.
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