Abbas and Netanyahu arrive in Washington for first direct peace negotiations in 20 months. Meetings begin Thursday 9/2.

Peace Now? Abbas and Netanyahu Arrive in Washington for Talks

Foreign Policy Correspondent

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had a packed schedule Tuesday as she lay the groundwork for peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, set to begin at a White House dinner Wednesday night. First she met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, then with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, followed by Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Later she saw former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and finally, as everyone was anxious to wrap up for dinner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But not half-way through her schedule, news came in that four Israeli Jews had been shot and killed in the West Bank, near the city of Hebron — two men and two women, one of them pregnant. Hamas claimed responsibility, reminding everyone that even if President Abbas and Fatah were at the table, they were not. Not to mention reminding everyone that sabotage of these fragile, still inchoate, talks is all too easy.
That ominous act cast a pall on the late August quiet in Washington, as the leaders of Israel and Palestine arrived, separately, willing, if not exactly ready, to begin direct peace negotiations for the first time in 20 months.
“While the parameters of an ultimate comprehensive peace agreement are well known, we do not expect to achieve peace in one meeting,” Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, acknowledging the shootings, Crowley added: “We are cognizant that there could be external events that can have an impact on the environment. We also are cognizant that there may well be actors in the region who are deliberately making these kinds of attacks in order to try to sabotage the process.
“We will be relying on, first and foremost, the commitment that we think the leaders themselves have made to pursue peace at this time, understanding that there’s a window here where we think peace can be accomplished.” said Crowley. “And our goal is to do so, to reach an agreement, within one year.”
Crowley called the restart of talks a “reinvigoration” of an “intensive process” where “going forward, the leaders will meet on a regular basis,” with the United States as “substantive participants.”
But reinvigoration is seen by many as a euphemism for reviving the dead. On the table are a myriad of issues that have haunted and undone talks stretching back to 1991. Borders. Security. Refugees. Water rights. And settlements. The last threatens to upend the entire process before anyone has poured the first glass of water.
The Israelis have already dug in their heels about extending the Sept. 26 deadline on settlement building. And President Abbas, in a televised speech on Sunday, announced that “Israel will be held accountable for the failure of the talks if settlement construction should continue.” Further, he said: “I have to say honestly and clearly that we notified all sides, including the American administration, before we agreed to conduct these talks, that Israel alone will bear the blame for the failure of the negotiations if the settlement construction continues in any way on any Palestinian land captured since 1967.”
In a press phone briefing, Steve Clemons, Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation debated whether the talks were a “last supper” or a “fresh start” and addressed some of the stickier issues facing the Obama administration as the White House chefs prepared dinner for Tuesday night’s reception of Netanyahu and Abbas.
Pointing out this is has been a “national security priority from day one” for the administration, Daniel Levy noted there is a “sense of skepticism and doom and gloom in the region,” partly attributable to the “the sense that people don’t feel there is an Obama-specific approach.” Noting that the administration hasn’t – yet – distinguished itself on the issue, or proposed a plan different from paths to peace used by previous administrations or secretaries of State, he nevertheless left room for President Obama to save the day, partly by reinvigorating the Israeli left.

“I would strongly argue that that Israeli left is not going to come out on its own,” he said. “And we are going to have to perform a C-section to get them out, and the Obama administration is going to have to be the surgeon.” In an op-ed for the Huffington Post published Tuesday evening, Levy went further, explaining that there are rumblings of a new wave of leftist peace activism in Israel, but all in its infancy, all waiting for Obama the “surgeon.”

In the same call, Amjad Atallah explained that, even beyond the tremendous problem of Hamas, there is no concensus on the question of peace among the Palestinian parties considered legitimate actors.
“Abbas is on a ledge,” he said. But he holds out hope that he might be pulled back. “If you are going to have a heroic leader drive this forward, I still believe there is a lot in Washington to suggest Obama might end up being that person.”
Back in the State Department briefing room, P.J. Crowley went further. “What we need is the political will and creativity to work through the complexity and challenge of these issues and ultimately reach an agreement that ends the conflict.

“But most importantly, we just need determination and political will on both sides, and also a commitment . . that as we re-launch this process, everyone has a stake in the outcome, everyone has a responsibility to create . . conditions that allow a successful negotiation to be reached, and to avoid taking actions or making statements that can hinder progress.”

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