News / Middle East

Long, Uncertain Path Ahead for Mideast Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry stands between Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, July 30, 2013, Washington.
US Secretary of State John Kerry stands between Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, July 30, 2013, Washington.
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Al Pessin
— The obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are large and longstanding, and analysts on the two sides are divided on whether this is the right time to overcome them.

It has been 46 years since Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, putting more than a million Palestinians under occupation. Now, they number about four million.

After all the years of attacks, repression, settlement building, international criticism of both sides, and a peace process with more stagnation than progress, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry believes now is the time to end the conflict. He said as much announcing the talks last month.

“We simply wouldn’t be standing here if the leaders - President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu - and their designated negotiators and all of us together didn’t believe that we could get there,” he said.

But skeptical analysts are wondering whether Kerry and the other leaders know something they don't know about how to solve the tough issues on the table, and what motivations might push the two sides make the difficult compromises that would be necessary.

Count the Dean of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, and peace process expert, Eyal Zisser among the skeptics.

“On the ground, when you speak to the average Israeli or Palestinian, yes, everybody wants peace. But is it something that he is ready to do everything [for], to sacrifice anything that is needed for this purpose? I doubt it very much. People got used to the idea that they can live in such a conflict. No one is in a hurry. You can't feel there is hunger for peace among Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. 

But 70 kilometers away on the West Bank, Birzeit University Professor Samir Awad said the Palestinians had at least one key reason to accept things like large Israeli settlement blocs that they would not have accepted before.

“We want to get rid of the Israeli occupation. Our motivation is that. We want to reach an agreement that allows us to devote our resources and efforts to the prosperity of our people, rather than to confronting Israel,” said the professor.

That is the moderate view, but it is not universal. Most importantly, it is not shared by the militant group Hamas and its supporters, who continue to refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, with 40 percent of the Palestinian population, and has supporters on the West Bank and among refugees as well.

And even moderates like Professor Awad said there would be no agreement unless Israel allowed Palestinian refugees to return, at least to the future Palestinian State, and did something it said it would never do - share Jerusalem.

“If the Israelis think that they can reach agreement with the Palestinians by really annexing Jerusalem to Israel, then they are dreaming,” he said.

Still, Awad is hopeful. He sees the U.S. role as crucial, and he worries that the mediators will favor Israel. But he said if the United States took what he called “a balanced approach” it just might work.

“If the Americans are really into it, if they really want an agreement, then they will get one,” he said.

And even the Israeli skeptic, analyst Zisser, said the conflict needed people like Kerry if there was to be any chance of peace.

“We need people who have a vision and people who really believe in their goal and mission. And maybe, maybe this time it will be different,” he said.

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for five hours in Jerusalem Wednesday evening, for what one official called “long and serious” talks. They plan to meet again next week in the Palestinian territories. The negotiators have put a news blackout on their talks, hoping that keeping their work private will enable them to make potentially unpopular compromises.

Still, eventually they will have to face their people, either with explanations of why they failed or with an agreement needing ratification that will almost certainly face strong opposition on both sides.

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