In New Mideast Talks, A Small Victory For U.S.

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in 2009. i i

hide captionPresident Obama watches Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in September 2009. The U.S. hopes that next month's meeting in Washington leads to an eventual resolution of disputes between the two sides.

John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images
Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in 2009.

President Obama watches Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in September 2009. The U.S. hopes that next month's meeting in Washington leads to an eventual resolution of disputes between the two sides.

John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images

The Obama administration has set the date for the first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in two years, a small diplomatic victory for an administration that made Arab-Israeli peace an early priority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have been invited to the White House on Sept.1. They will be joined by Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is hoping the Israeli and Palestinians will start "to relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year."

Palestinians were wary of entering into open-ended negotiations on statehood and wanted a time frame and clear agenda. But, Israel argued, there should be no preconditions.

New Approach

Clinton left open many questions about the parameters of the talks but told reporters Friday that "these negotiations should take place without preconditions and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success, which will bring a better future to all of the people of the region."

Getting the two sides to the table together is hardly a breakthrough. However, the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peacemaking is somewhat new, says Scott Lasensky, co-author of the book Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East. He points out that Middle East envoy George Mitchell has already mentioned the idea of "bridging proposals."

"So this is not going to be peacemaking as cheerleading" says Lasensky, a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace. He says the U.S. will, at an appropriate time, put its ideas forward.

"And that sort of hovers over the process and provides a little incentive for the parties to make progress on their own, because they know in the back of their minds the U.S. may step forward," he says.

Checkered Record Of Talks

Another thing hovering over the talks will be the record of two decades of Arab-Israeli negotiations, with all the ups and downs.

"The fact is that all the big taboos have been broken on Jerusalem, on refugees, on borders," Lasensky says, citing the major sticking points. "All these issues have been broached and major concessions have been made, and I think it raises the bar for what will be considered serious in these talks."

Mitchell says all of those so-called final status issues will be on the table when Netanyahu and Abbas come to Washington. He says the U.S. will remain an active and sustained partner and that he will show the kind of patience he did when he served as mediator during the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s.

"Past efforts at [Mideast] peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again, because the cause is noble and just and right for all concerned," Mitchell told reporters at the State Department.

Like Painting A House

Various U.S.-based organizations welcomed the direct negotiations as a small but important step.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Task Force on Palestine issued a rare joint statement calling on both sides to show "courage and flexibility."

The announcement of the September talks came after what officials on both sides described as difficult back-and-forth negotiations by Mitchell. He had been shuttling between the two sides and is hoping the process will now speed up with direct talks.

"I liken it to the first time I owned a house and had it painted," he joked. "It took the painters seemingly forever to prime the building and the walls ... and after this seemingly endless priming, they painted it very quickly."

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