Even though it's only at arm's length and through an intermediary, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have now formally re-engaged in talks designed to lead to a settlement of their differences. This is the burden of last night's announcement from Washington. That it has occurred at all is pretty extraordinary, given the obstacles that for more than a year have seemed to block the path to any imminent resumption of negotiations. Those problems have not gone away. They have been temporarily circumnavigated, and will have finally to be resolved if the talks are to succeed.
What are the chances?
On the plus side the US administration in general, and President Obama's middle east envoy George Mitchell in particular, will be deeply engaged in the initiative. "We will be actively involved in managing the indirect talks," said a US official, "and also proposing ideas of our own." In the initial stages, Mitchell is expected to shuttle between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. This first phase, to which the US has allotted a period of four months, will probably be concerned with the structure and scope of the talks. If these are successful, it is Mitchell's intention to move as soon as possible to direct face-to-face discussions on matters of real substance.
From the US point of view the talks will be based on the Obama administration's stated objectives for the Middle East. In President Obama's speech to the United Nations, he set out his goal of a secure, Jewish state in Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine and an end to the 1967 occupation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently spoke of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with territory exchanges, combined with Israel's desire for a secure Jewish state that includes "recent developments," meaning some sort of deal on some at least of the West Bank settlements.
The Israeli position was set out by prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a Jerusalem speech last night. Welcoming the renewal of the peace process, he said that the two principles that would guide him during the talks were the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the need for real security arrangements on the ground that would ensure Israel’s security.
From the Palestinian perspective, on Sunday the PLO endorsed the indirect talks, following Arab League backing last week for four months of negotiations which, the Palestinians say, should focus on security and the borders of a future state. Saeb Erekat, the PA chief negotiator, is insistent that the negotiations resume from where they stopped during Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister. He reiterated the Palestinian outline for a peace deal – a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip along the lines in place before Israel captured the two territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, "with agreed swaps". Olmert had offered Abbas an Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, and Israeli territory in exchange for the remaining 6 percent. In addition, Israel would symbolically accept 5,000 Palestinian refugees and enable international governance for the holy sites in the Old City.
However In a Jerusalem meeting with Quartet envoys on Friday, George Mitchell's deputy, David Hale, said the understandings reached by Ehud Olmert and Abbas would not be binding. In fact, Abbas never responded formally to Olmert's offer. So the talks will be based on agreements actually signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the road map.
Yesterday the Palestinians issued a strongly worded protest after Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the settlement of Beitar Ilit, despite the construction freeze in the West Bank settlements. During his meeting with George Mitchell in Ramallah, Abbas said that this decision showed that the Netanyahu government was not serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians. According to chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, Abbas was particularly concerned about the decision to build the new homes in Betar, “despite the big deception called settlement freeze.” He said the decision was at the top of the agenda of the Abbas-Mitchell talks.
According to an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman, the decision was made because of “safety issues.” The 112 units, it was explained, are part of a larger project, and not building them, while the others are in various stages of construction, constituted a safety risk. In Washington, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israeli officials had explained that the construction was approved before the moratorium.
"On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced," said Crowley. "On the other hand, this is a the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of, as we move ahead with these parallel talks."