In the few days since the re-launch of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the media has been overflowing with the direst of dire predictions about the inevitability of their failure. None other than His Excellency the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Prosor, has drawn a convincing comparison between these prophets of doom and the two Muppet Show characters, Statler and Waldorf. Up there they sit, these two thoroughly disagreeable old men, in the balcony box in the Muppet Theater, heckling every aspect of the show and flinging insults right, left and centre, at the players.
Of course the obstacles to achieving the ambitious objective of an accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians within twelve months are formidable – and I am certain that no-one realises the fact more than the two principals: Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Neither of them are fools, and yet both have signed up to this new peace initiative, and to its achievement in the space of a year.
"We understand the suspicion and scepticism that so many feel, born out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes," said US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at the opening ceremony, "but by being here today you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change."
George Mitchell, President Obama’s Middle East envoy, who joined the negotiations, said that at this first meeting the two leaders decided to begin putting together a framework agreement on all major issues – including borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and security – that will "establish the fundamental compromises necessary" to flesh out a comprehensive peace deal.
In declaring that he believed a deal was possible within the twelve-month timeframe, Abbas said: "We're not starting from scratch, because we had many rounds of negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government." Netanyahu said: "Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict. This will not be easy. A true peace, a lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides … from my side and,” he said, addressing Abbas direct, “from your side."
Mitchell announced that Netanyahu and Abbas had agreed to meet again in a fortnight in the Middle East, and every two weeks after that. Hillary Clinton and Mitchell will attend the first of those meetings on 14 September in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
To be realistic – indeed sceptical – about the initative and its likely success is entirely understandable, but whatever one’s reservations about the process, the motives of those participating, and the formidable problems that lie in the way of achieving a positive outcome, it cannot be denied that this was a hopeful beginning. The parties met under the auspices of the only feasible mediating power, they shook hands, they each pledged themselves to addressing the issues in a serious and positive spirit, they agreed the objective being sought and the period within which it might be achieved.
Equally serious, however, is the determination of Hamas and its fellow extreme Islamist partners to derail this new initative with a wave of terror. Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing has said: "We declare that the actions of resistance have gone into a new and advanced stage of co-operation in the field at the highest levels in preparation for more effective attacks against the enemy.” Ubaida was referring to a meeting last week between Hamas and 12 other militant Palestinian groups in Gaza to plan this new terror campaign.
This threatened upsurge in indiscrimate violence represents a sea change from past such efforts, horrific though they have often been. Hamas has claimed responsibility for two shooting attacks against Israeli cars in the West Bank last week. Last Tuesday, they slaughtered four people, one of them a pregnant woman. Later a Hamas spokesman designated the incident an “heroic attack.” A spokesman for the group's military wing said that no options had been ruled out, and that suicide bombings could be used to target Israel. The objective? To torpedo the new drive for peace.
In the past, however strained their explanation, Hamas and other Islamist groups, have almost invariably justified their terrorist attacks by referring to some previous counter-terrorist action by Israel, and claiming that their attack was a legitimate response. Not this time. Now the threat is quite simply to disrupt the peace process, and by whatever means. In short, they offer no justification for what was done last week, and what is threatened for the future, except their determination to undermine, disrupt and destroy any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to scupper the prospect of an independent sovereign state of Palestine. Their stance is simple nihilism.
Of course, their campaign is directed quite as much against the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah President, Mahmoud Abbas, as against Israel itself. The fact that the two latest attacks were carried out in the West Bank was an implied declaration that the Hamas writ runs outside Gaza just as surely as it does inside – and that, in the final analysis, Hamas seeks to dominate the entire Palestinian people, not merely those in the Gaza Strip whose governance it seized in a bloody coup in June 2007.
This, it goes without saying, is fully understood by the PA – which explains the immediate security crackdown by Abbas's security forces across the West Bank. Hundreds of Hamas activists were arrested, and two suspects linked to the second attack, in which two Israelis were wounded, have been arrested. Israeli security forces, too, have been placed on a high level of alert and have set up new checkpoints on roads in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, has been unable to resist giving the extremist pot an extra stir. During a pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran he declared: "The nations of the region are able to eliminate the Zionist regime from the face of the earth," adding that “its life has come to an end". He joins Hamas in asserting that Mahmoud Abbas has no authority to participate in peace talks on behalf of Palestinians.
One might well riposte: “If not the elected President of the Palestinian Authority, then who?”
Long, slow and painful has been the journey to the present situation, where Netanyahu and Abbas can actually meet in Washington, under the auspices of the President of the United States, and in the presence of President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, and do so in a positive spirit, declaring their determination to try to reach a final accord. Taking all this into account, one might indeed also ask: “And if not now – when?”