U.S. presidents have been trying to bring peace to the Middle East since Barack Obama was in high school. So when Obama brought Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington last week to restart the oft-stalled peace process, expectations were not high. During the run-up to the talks, hard-liners on both sides seemed determined to try to derail them: a rabbi in the far-right Israeli Shas party called for the death of all Palestinians, and Hamas gunmen killed four Jewish settlers.
But Abbas and Netanyahu seemed determined too. At a White House appearance last Wednesday, Netanyahu called the Hamas killers "butchers," but he also said the attacks emphasized the need for peace. And Abbas spoke more bluntly about Israel's security than usual, saying, "We consider security as essential and vital both for us and for you."
Although there were the usual reasons for pessimism, there was perhaps a surprising amount of optimism when the talks began in earnest at the State Department. Over the years, the two sides have reached consensus on the broad principles of a two-state solution, and majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians support a negotiated settlement with the other side. "An argument can be made," Middle East envoy George Mitchell told reporters after the talks, "that the prior failures create an even more compelling imperative to proceed now." Some think that Netanyahu, for all his hawkishness, could act as a sort of Nixon-in-China figure and sell a peace deal to a skeptical Israeli public better than someone to his left.
If anything of substance was decided at the talks, however, it wasn't announced. In particular, there was no apparent movement on the most sensitive immediate issue, the status of the partial Israeli moratorium on constructing new settlements in Palestinian territories. The moratorium is scheduled to expire on September 26, which could bring the new talks to an abrupt end. Many observers, though, say the most likely option would be for Netanyahu to tell the Palestinians that the moratorium would be de facto extended, while saving political face by not announcing it. "Everyone's watching this, and he's in a very, very tough spot," says Daniel Byman, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "People have become very cynical, and that creates a momentum all its own—you can look ridiculous if you make concessions."
But the two sides did agree to meet again September 14-15 in Egypt, and every two weeks thereafter. The fact that Obama started this process relatively early in his presidency bodes well, Mitchell said. Previous efforts have failed because "they ran out of time at the end," he said. "President Obama is the only president in recent times, to my knowledge, to have established this as a high priority immediately upon taking office and to have acted immediately at that time."
For now, there's headway on process. But it's too soon to say whether that's a prelude to progress on the hard, substantive issues or to another disappointment.
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