JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are expected to sit down Wednesday in Jerusalem for U.S.-backed talks aimed at ending nearly 20 years of stagnation in their peace process. But events in the days leading up to the talks have deepened some highly emotional aspects of the conflict, and fueled pessimism about the the latest effort to end it.
It was 19 years and 11 months ago that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, with U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on.
"Now both pledge to put old sorrows and antagonisms behind them, and to work for a shared future, shaped by the values of the Torah, the Quran and the Bible. Therefore, let us resolve that this new mutual recognition will be a continuing process, in which the parties transform the very way they see and understand each other,” he said.
But it did not work out that way.
The accords, largely negotiated in secret in Oslo, opened channels of communication, gave some autonomy to the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory and established a plan for further negotiations on a comprehensive and permanent peace. And there was some progress in the early years.
But the process stalled when the two sides could not agree on the difficult issues they had set aside in the initial accords - chief among them the status of Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the Israel-Palestinian border and security arrangements, and the fate of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
Efforts over the years to restart the process have not gotten very far, and analyst Jordan Perry of the British risk assessment firm Maplecroft, does not expect this attempt to be any different.
“I think the chances are fairly limited," he said. "I do not think really, on either side, there is a real impetus to actually change tack or change approach.”
The issues are logistically and politically difficult, and highly emotional on both sides. That has been demonstrated again in the run-up to these talks.
Israel approved the construction of 2,000 new homes in some of the settlements, angering the Palestinians and causing one official to predict the talks could break down even before they start. But the Palestinians had dropped their long-held demand for a settlement construction moratorium as pre-condition for talks.
In return, Israel agreed to release 100 Palestinian prisoners. And the first group of 26 caused much angst in Israel. The former Commissioner of the Israeli Prisoner Service, Orit Adato, says these are hardened criminals who personally committed murder, including one who beat an old man to death with a pipe, and another who killed a Holocaust survivor with an ax.
But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Adato also noted that they have all served more than 20 years, and while she calls the release a “high price” for just starting talks, she thinks it is worth paying.
“I, as a former commissioner, would say, 'Let us release them. It is OK.' I am not saying it with all my heart," said Adato. "I am saying it with my brain, with my hope that it will change a little bit the atmosphere among the Palestinians. I hope they will assess the value that we are paying now, and it will open the minds to go really forward.”
But the settlement construction has overshadowed the prisoner release, leaving the talks' prospects for success as dubious as ever. Indeed, Jordan Perry said the chances are further reduced because both parties do not want another partial agreement. They want a final deal on all issues, or no agreement at all.
“I still think it is fairly limited, actually, that it will be this case of agreeing on a few issues and then putting others aside," said Perry. "There are some real, key issues that really, the changes of being resolved are highly limited.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry led the effort to restart the negotiations. He rejects such skepticism, saying there is one key motivation that will make these talks different.
“The leaders, the negotiators, and citizens invested in this effort can make peace for one simple reason: because they must," said Kerry. "A viable two-state solution is the only way this conflict can end, and there is not much time to achieve it, and there is no other alternative.”
So the talks begin with high-level official determination, but also with historically impossible issues on the table and fresh anger over recent events in the air. It's a huge challenge for the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and their American mediators.
And Kerry has given them just nine months to meet it.
VOA’s Susan Yackee speaks with Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, about the tangled web of Mideast peace.