Amid Mideast revolt, a chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met at a State Department dinner Monday night for their first direct talks in more than three years, some in Washington's foreign policy community said ongoing meltdowns in other Middle Eastern nations may have created a rare window for peace between the two sides.

"There are too many things happening in the region, too many countries that are in a state of flux and, ironically, that's actually producing an incentive to get these negotiations going again," said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With particular regard to the motivations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government made the unexpected move of freeing 104 Palestinian prisoners Sunday, Mr. Nerguizian offered a sobering assessment: "When everything is burning around you, you don't need a fire at home, too."

He made the remarks on a day in which President Obama vowed his full support for a two-state solution in the decades-old conflict and Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced the appointment of Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, to serve as special U.S. envoy to the negotiations.

With peace talks having broken down in 2010 amid disputes over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, Mr. Kerry told reporters on Monday afternoon that the pursuit now of "reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all this effort."

"I know the negotiations are going to be tough," said the secretary of state, who personally hosted Monday night's dinner at Foggy Bottom. "But I also know that the consequences of not trying could be worse."

Middle East analysts in Washington have expressed little more than guarded optimism toward the restarting of talks.

"I think you have to say expectations are modest," David Makovsky said in remarks posted Saturday on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The question, said Mr. Makovsky, who heads the institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, is whether Israeli and Palestinian negotiators succeed in isolating the key individual issues that have long caused friction between the two sides, such as border agreements, security, the status of Jerusalem and refugee populations.

"I think if they try to do it all, they may fail," he said. "But if they try to settle for less and don't overreach, they may achieve things."

The two sides' views

The evolving circumstances of the region, however, may be fueling desires among Israeli and Palestinian leaders — albeit for different reasons — to break ground.

"In the long term, there's this very real prospect that decay and destabilization around Israel will continue for years if not decades," Mr. Nerguizian said.

"The security environment Israel finds itself in make it that much more important to engage now in a meaningful process," he said. "Any reduction in tension or instability will have a positive impact on Israeli security because it will potentially then lead to things like normalization with other countries in the region."

As for the Palestinians, Mr. Nerguizian said, they view the situation as "not much brighter."

"They don't see any prospect of their negotiating position improving as time goes by. If anything they now rightly recognize that things are not going to get better in terms of internal Arab support for engaging in a negotiation with the Israelis," he said.

Furthermore, Mr. Nerguizian said, the choice of Mr. Indyk as the key U.S. representative could be "an interesting indicator" of the Obama administration's true posture toward the talks and the likelihood of any tangible progress during the days, weeks and months ahead.

"He's a heavyweight and he's got the right credentials here with the Israelis," Mr. Nerguizian said. "And the Palestinians are not in a position to renege on his appointment."

He noted that Mr. Indyk is not disposed to try for too much and jeopardize the progress that can be made on individual issues. President Clinton tried unsuccessfully to push through an agreement on all final-status matters at the 2000 Camp David summit.

"This is not someone who is going to sign up for a Hail Mary pass," he said. "He's been more nuanced than a lot of folks who could have been appointed."

Mr. Kerry spoke similarly, calling Mr. Indyk "realistic" and a man who "understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily and it will not happen overnight."

Mr. Indyk, 62, served two stints as ambassador to Israel, first under Mr. Clinton from 1995 to 1997 and later during the transition between the Clinton administration and the George W. Bush administration during 2000 and 2001.

"It's been my conviction for 40 years that peace is possible," Mr. Indyk told reporters at the State Department, although he acknowledged that the task of making progress toward a breakthrough in negotiations would be a "daunting and humbling" challenge.

Kerry on a mission

Some foreign policy analysts have praised Mr. Kerry for aggressively pushing to reopen Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since joining the Obama administration in January.

Although some have criticized the administration for abandoning the Middle East in pursuit a self-described "pivot" to Asia, Mr. Kerry has traveled more often to Middle Eastern nations than anywhere else on the planet during the past seven months.

"Understand that there were six trips by the secretary of state, so it's not just a case of suddenly the seas parted and there was an epiphany," Dennis B. Ross, who served in high-level diplomatic advisory roles under Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama, said in remarks also posted on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The fact is this reflected a lot of work by the secretary with both leaders, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas," said Mr. Ross, who holds the title of counselor at the institute.

For Monday night's dinner meeting and talks planned for Tuesday, the Israelis are being represented in by the Netanyahu government's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, along with Yitzhak Molcho, an Israeli lawyer serving as Mr. Netanyahu's special envoy to the talks.

The Palestinians are being represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat as well as Mohammad Shtayyeh, a close aide to Mr. Abbas.

Asked Monday whether Mr. Obama might take part directly in the talks, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest replied, "There's no current plan for that."

In his statement Monday, Mr. Obama said that "the United States stands ready to support them throughout these negotiations, with the goal of achieving two states, living side by side in peace and security."

The president said that while "the most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead," his own travel to the Middle East during recent months gave him confidence that there could be a breakthrough.

Other key foreign policy players in Washington expressed similar confidence.

"For years, I and many others have been calling for direct, face-to-face talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians without preconditions, and it appears that this will be the case," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I have long supported a two-state solution under the principle of two states for two peoples: a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian Arab state, living side by side in peace and security," Mr. Engel said in a statement. "I hope the parties will be able to achieve that goal."

He added that Mr. Netanyahu personally assured him that "Israel is and has always been ready to make the difficult decisions necessary to reach peace."

"I hope that President Abbas will also be willing to make such decisions," Mr. Engel said.


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