U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is back in the Middle East this week, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to try and prevent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from collapsing. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, three months after a U.S. brokered Mideast Peace Conference, the issue of Gaza has now intruded into the talks, complicating the negotiations.
Secretary Rice's most immediate task will be to restart the peace talks, which have been suspended by the Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out of the talks this week, after more than 100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip -- during operations to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets at southern Israel.
Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, a web-based periodical devoted to Mideast conflict resolution issues says Secretary Rice might be able to achieve that limited goal - but the question remains, are Israelis and Palestinians making any real progress aimed at resolving their conflict.
"If the only purpose of her visit is to get the peace talks happening again, and assuming as I do that we will probably be witnessing a de-escalation in and around Gaza in the coming days then she may be able before she leaves to say she has succeeded in doing that," said Alpher. "But that is to my mind not a particularly triumphant accomplishment. The real question is, are these peace talks capable of leading to a viable agreement, and where are we heading with Gaza."
Since they met last year at Annapolis, Maryland and pledged to reach a peace deal by the end of this year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas have held several rounds of talks. By all accounts the meetings are warm and cordial. But Palestinians are becoming increasingly vocal in their complaints that Israel is stalling on key issues that need to be resolved if any progress is to be made.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki recently noted that so far the talks have not changed anything on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank.
"Not one single roadblock was lifted. The Israeli settlement policies did not stop," he said. "Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land and continue its settlement projects; continues to destroy Palestinian homes; and the killing of Palestinian individuals - that did not stop."
For their part, Israeli officials say there has been progress but the talks are secret and little can be divulged. Aryeh Mekel of Israel's Foreign Ministry cautions patience, but also says Israel too has reasons to complain.
"The core issues of the conflict have not been dealt with for eight years, now these issues are being revisited and we are starting to make progress," said Mekel. "So a lot has been done. You know the Palestinians really have to decide - you can sit there and complain all the time and be unhappy about everything, but doing that will there ever be a Palestinian state? No. We could have stopped the negotiations when the Qassam rockets did not stop but we did not do that. We are continuing and we think both sides should try and make progress - otherwise we will never solve the conflict."
Hanging over the talks is the issue of Gaza. Even if progress is eventually made between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas, both men will still have to deal with Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.
Yossi Alpher of Bitterlemons.org says the issue of Gaza could still derail the talks, and for now there is little Israeli officials can do about it, except to hope that Mr. Abbas might be able to bring Gaza along in any eventual peace deal with Israel.
"The Olmert government understands that if we move into Gaza, if we reoccupy Gaza, it could be the end of the peace process," said Alpher. "It does not want that to happen. It does not have a solid exact strategy and it does not want to negotiate a long term cease-fire with Hamas."
"So it [Olmert government] does what is necessary in order to strike back and try and deter Hamas, but it does not appear to have any long term strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza -- other than the hope that somehow the negotiations with the Palestinians in the West Bank will succeed, and that will take care of everybody's Gaza problem. That I say is a real long shot," he added.
Even if the problems in Gaza do not derail the current talks between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas, Yossi Alpher says both men have yet to prove they are capable of taking the risks or making the sacrifices necessary for the peace process to be a success. He says now both men have a limited amount of time to show progress before the violence in Gaza overwhelms the fragile peace process begun last year at the Annapolis conference.