New Mideast talks: an Obama win fraught with difficulties



VINEYARD HAVEN, Tangi Quemener- The resumption of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is a welcome diplomatic coup for US President Barack Obama, as long as negotiators steer clear of well-known obstacles, political observers said.
"We're very hopeful" the talks will lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East, Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said Friday in Martha's Vineyard, where the First Family is spending a 10-day vacation.



New Mideast talks: an Obama win fraught with difficulties
"We are going forward with this with a strong sense that these talks can succeed," he added, referring to the talks announced that same day by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas are to meet in Washington on September 2 to launch a targeted one year of negotiations to create an independent Palestinian state.
The summit is seen as a diplomatic success for Obama, who made a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of his administration's top goals.
Nearly mid-way through his four-year mandate, Obama has chalked up a number of foreign policy achievements, including new UN sanctions against Iran, improved relations with Russia, stronger involvement in Asia and the Muslim world, and a nuclear weapons non-proliferation initiative.
His international efforts were rewarded in late 2009 with the Nobel Peace prize, which he felt he did not deserve but accepted as a "call to action for all of us."
A breakthrough in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holy Grail of international diplomacy, would be an impressive notch on Obama's belt.
However, the fact that it took a year and a half of relentless pressure and shuttle diplomacy to get both parties to return to the point they were 17 years ago at the debut of the Oslo peace process, is an indication of the Herculean task Obama has taken on.
Friday's peace talks announcement only mentioned the thorny issues at hand, including the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the border delineation of the future Palestinian state.
"There are a number of issues that are outstanding," admitted Brennan.
A look back shows the dangers of fixing goals in Middle East peace talks: the 2003 Roadmap for Peace of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush called for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.
Recent events in Gaza have also proven that peace negotiations are often hostage to regional violence.
The Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, rejected the planned talks.
"This invitation is a new attempt to fool the Palestinian people after the Annapolis experience, during which we were promised a Palestinian state within a year," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
He was referring to the formal restart of US-hosted peace negotiations between Abbas and then Israeli premier Ehud Olmert in November 2007, after a seven-year freeze.
These talks, held at a Maryland country estate, are now often referred to as a false start.
Brennan could only say that Obama "and this administration hopes that all sides will remain committed, irrespective of what these extremist organizations or militant groups might say or even do."
"It’s way too early to declare the resumption of direct peace talks a real achievement," said Thomas Mann, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
"It is a small but essential step in dealing with an impossibly difficult situation," he added.
Even less optimistic, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt wrote on the Foreign Policy website that the direct talks are merely an illusion, given the extremely divergent positions of both sides and Obama's unwillingness to apply "meaningful pressure" to get concessions from Israel.
"At this point... the only thing that will convince onlookers that US policy has changed will be tangible results.
"Another round of inconclusive 'talks' will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver," Walt said.
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Sunday, August 22nd 2010
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