Although the next meeting of the Arab League was originally scheduled for 27 March, a special meeting was convened yesterday in Cairo to consider the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas has been under considerable pressure to do so ever since President Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, returned to the Middle East in January. After some shuttle diplomacy around the major Arab capitals and in Israel, Mitchell came up with the idea of kicking off the resumption of talks, suspended in December 2008 at the start of the Gaza conflict, by a preliminary phase of indirect negotiations. Taking the idea of "proximity talks" from the Turkey-hosted indirect discussions between Israel and Syria, he suggested the same process as a way to re-start the process, leading to direct face-to-face discussions in due course.
Abbas, aware of the tight-rope he is walking as regards Palestinian public opinion – and indeed of Hamas tugging at one end of the rope in an effort to dislodge him – has been coy about agreeing. He first made a number of requirements of Israel about freezing all construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem. Netanyahu went some, but not all, of the way to meeting his requirements. Abbas then requested clarification of the proximity talks proposal from the USA. US officials appear to have satisfied him. He then still held back, indicating that he would need cover from other Arab governments before taking the plunge.
Well, now that cover has been provided. The Arab League has provided its backing for the US plan to hold indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. The US and Israel immediately welcomed the Arab League endorsement and Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that "conditions were now ripe" to resume negotiations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the Arab League's announcement: "We were very pleased by the endorsement that came out of Cairo today. We are very committed to try to bring about the two-state solution, and we hope the proximity talks will be the beginning of that process."
The process may begin as early as Sunday. George Mitchell is due to arrive in the region on Saturday night, and hopes the two sides will declare their willingness to start the process the following day. On Monday US Vice President, Joe Biden, also arrives in the region, and is expected to deliver the official notification to Israel from the Palestinian Authority of their agreement to the start of indirect talks.
If all goes according to plan, next week promises to turn the tide of much adverse criticism of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
But what of the mountainous obstacles, as well as the nitty-gritty difficulties, that both sides face in trying to come to an agreement?
Despite myriad challenges, there are optimistic voices among both Israelis and Palestinians. Gadi Baltiansky, once a member of Ehud Barak's negotiating team when he was prime minister, now heads the Geneva Initiative, an influential non-governmental organization that produces detailed proposals for a final-status agreement. In its most recent report, the institute offered an answer to every logistical problem facing the two-state solution, except for the refugee question.
On the Palestinian side, a similarly optimistic view comes from former PLO negotiator Khalil Tafakji, who today heads the maps department at Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem. He thinks that most of the commonly raised difficulties can be solved “with a good map” and use of innovative transportation links like sunken roads. Tafakji believes that if there is a political will, there is a diplomatic way. “If we can make trust between the two peoples,” he said, “we can overcome the problems.”
The longest journey begins with but a single step. The resumption of peace talks next week might just be that step.