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Netanyahu Settlement Vow May Complicate Mideast Peace Talks


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement that he will not seek an extension of a settlement construction freeze, but may limit new building, sets the tone for the second round of renewed Mideast peace talks. The talks get underway Tuesday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Much of the pessimism surrounding the relaunched direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can be traced to the deadline later this month for the settlement freeze to expire.

Palestinian negotiators made clear new construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank would be a deal-breaker. But even in the first meetings earlier this month in Washington, the idea of some sort of compromise was being floated.

Editor-in-chief of the Egyptian opposition newspaper el-Ahaly, Farida el-Nakash, has been covering the talks. She says those close to the negotiations told her and other journalists that the Israeli leader promised U.S. President Barack Obama he would for all practical purposes continue the freeze, but that he could not declare that outright.

Mr. Netanyahu is under intense pressure from conservatives within his government to end the freeze, which makes his somewhat nuanced announcement Sunday appear an attempt at finding a middle ground.

Mr. Abbas is also struggling to take into account splits among those he is trying to represent. The rival Palestinian faction Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, let alone the current talks or a compromise on settlements.

Egypt, which is hosting Tuesday's meeting, has been trying to reconcile the two factions, with little success.

Editor Nakash says the Arab world could do more to help the Palestinian side. She argues it will take a change in the balance of power between the Arab states and Israel to get the latter to implement some of its previous promises. Nakash says the Arab side could use its strengths as an oil ally and partner in rebuilding Iraq to persuade the United States to put pressure on Israel, which is still widely seen in the region as having unconditional American support.

The United States has invested heavily in having the talks go forward, with a goal of finding a structure for resolving the most contentious issues within a year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday and in Jerusalem on Wednesday. She and other officials have said the chance to find a peaceful solution is running out.

But given the decades of false starts that have preceded these talks, some are looking for additional reasons they have been given such a high priority.

Retired Lebanese Army General Elias Hanna believes the talks are also a means to an end, in this case, resolving U.S. problems with Iran.

Not, he says, that true engagement between the two will be easy.

"It needs time. It needs time, like tit for tat. Action for action," he said. "And this tit for tat, this action for action is happening, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank or in Lebanon or in Iraq. When they settle down for something, they will go into something very open. But they need to prepare the ground for it."

Editor Nakesh agrees Iran is likely very much on the minds of all involved. She notes not only in Israel, where concern is high about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb, but also in the Arab world. She calls the Iranian issue the background to the economic and political reality of the region.

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