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2 Sep, 2010 22:54

Middle East peace talks open in Washington

Leaders of Israel and Palestine set up a date for the next peace talks as a result of today’s meeting in Washington.

The next session will take place on September 14-15 in the Middle East, according to the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

“We decided to meet again on September 14 and 15 in the region,” he said. “And then to meet every two weeks.”

He also said that work between the two parties will be going on between the meetings.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas decided that for the success of the negotiations the talks should be kept private and held very carefully, Mitchell stated.

“So all information I am and will be authorized to tell you will be limited,” he said.

The US special envoy also touched on the inevitable hardness of the process, and those who try to blow up the negotiations using violence

The US is mediating the negotiations, but says is not going to impose a solution.

Earlier, welcoming the two leaders to the White House on Wednesday, Obama called on Netanyahu and Abbas to recognize that “this moment of opportunity may not come again soon.”

Obama has also expressed hope of reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians within the year.

Moscow shares the same view. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that the negotiations are not going to be easy, but sitting down to talks is in itself a chance “that can’t be wasted.”

“We back the direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, although they have caused an ambivalent reaction in Palestinian and Arab circles,” said Sergey Lavrov.

No easy talks

Opening the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the parties to “ignore the long history of failed negotiations and make needed compromises to forge an agreement."

“We will be an active and sustained partner,” she said. “But we cannot and we will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his counterpart with the words, “President Abbas, history has given us a rare opportunity to end the conflict between our peoples, a conflict that has been lasting for almost a century. It's an unprecedented opportunity.”

Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged the talks will not be easy, but expressed hope they will eventually lead to peace in the region.

“Ladies and gentlemen, now that you are launching these negotiations today, we do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we're facing and we will face during these negotiations, negotiations that should, within a year, lead to an agreement that will bring peace, the just peace of international law, international legality between our two people, the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said.

Settlement construction has become the crucial issue on the table which could determine the success or failure of negotiations.

Phyllis Bennis, from the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, says the US is capable of imposing pressure on Israel to extend a construction freeze, but has never done so.

“[Obama] is wrong – we can impose terms. When the US is giving Israel over $30 billion over 10 years in military aid, when the US provides absolute protection for Israel in the United Nations and in the international arena to make sure that Israel is never held accountable for allegations of war crimes and other violations of international law – that means the US has an enormous instrument,” said Bennis.

No optimism

The talks began in the wake of the killing of four Israeli settlers in Hebron on Tuesday by the militant group Hamas, which has opposed direct peace talks. In response to the shooting, a right-wing Israeli group has unilaterally started new building work in the occupied West Bank.

Yossi Beilin, a former deputy prime minister of Israel, believes the peace talks are unlikely to lead to a permanent agreement as “the gap between the sides is too wide.” But in his opinion another kind of agreement could be a solution.

“My suggestion to the parties and to the United States is to change the target of the negotiations toward an interim agreement, and not a permanent one,” he said. Otherwise, “the failure of these talks might have very negative ramifications on the region.”

Hamas is another obstacle which makes impossible a permanent agreement, he noted.

“It is clear that President Mahmoud Abbas is not coming to the table with Gaza and the talks won’t result in a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza,” Beilin said.

“Also, when we talk about the exchange of lands between the West Bank and Israel, the idea is that those will be the land around the Gaza Strip. But no Israeli prime minister would enlarge the Gaza Strip while Hamas is there,” he added.

Daniel Pollak, the co-director for government relations with the Zionist Organization of America argued that Hamas has no place in the peace talks, because the group teaches violence, not peace. Whereas Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Palestine Center said that all players should be included.

In a word, Hamas is claiming responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed four unarmed civilians yesterday and including them in the peace talks would make peace no more likely. But, unfortunately this entire affair is destined to come down to how much the Palestinians want peace at all and the news there is very bad,” said Pollak.

Munayyer argued that the chances are slim a deal will be reached in the next your. The process, he argued, simply does not allow for a swift solution.

We are no longer in the pre-2006 era before the election that Hamas won and came into power. Since that time we’ve had this major question of legitimacy within the Palestinian domestic political arena and we can’t go about talking about peace the same way we did before that area if we can’t bring everybody into the discussion,” said Munayyer.

Pollak argued that they would be a determent, since they are not a partner for peace but instead have called for the killing of all Jews.

Munayyer pointed out that on the Israeli side there are a number of people who are violent and refuse to acknowledge Palestinian rights; some even calling for genocide. 

Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper also predicts the failure of the talks. The reason, he says, is the unwillingness of the Israeli government to change its policies and discuss concrete issues like Jerusalem or settlements in the West Bank.

“We are the occupying power, we can decide whether we want peace or not, we can decide whether to stop settlements – it is really our responsibility. And I don’t see any change in Israeli policy whatsoever,” he told RT. “That [peace agreement] is not going to happen. It’s another delaying tactic.”

Although Hamas hasn't been in Washington for talks, it wouldn't go even if it was invited – so says Atef Adwan, minister of refugee affairs with the Hamas government.

“I don’t think Hamas will participate in any dialogue with the Israeli side, since they are occupying our land,” Adwan told RT. “People who are under occupation, they have the right to resist. We need to have our own state, to build our own future, to have a bright future for our children.”

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, believes that peace can only be reached if there are concessions from both Israelis and Palestinians.

“As a matter of fact, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been staring at us for the more than the last 15 years,” he told RT. “There is really no other solution but the two-state solution that can lead [to] security, and peace, and prosperity. It is entirely possible. Certainly both sides must make necessary compromise for that. Israel must evacuate many of the settlements scattered all over the West Bank. That is just a fact of life, it needs to be done! The Palestinians must provide Israel with the security that Israel needs.”