WASHINGTON — The first Middle East peace talks in nearly two years got off to a quick start Thursday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to meet again in two weeks and to commence work on the blueprint for a peace treaty.
Netanyahu and Abbas conferred alone for 90 minutes at the State Department following group meetings that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell.
Any sense of hope, however, was tempered by the immense challenges facing the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans and the risks of heightened violence and radicalism if they once again fail to end the conflict.
Nabil Shaath, a senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said Abbas and Netanyahu held "deep discussions" of "the core issues" between them. "But the heavy cloud of the settlement issue is still hovering there," he said, adding there was "no positive answer" from Netanyahu on continuing the moratorium.
"We assume a solution will be found before the 26th," Shaath said, referring to the expiration of Netanyahu's moratorium on new settlement construction. He added that that the Palestinians would continue negotiations in the meantime.
Clinton opened the talks with a nod to the veterans of past Mideast peace attempts who gathered around a U-shaped table. "We've been here before, and we know how difficult the road ahead will be," she said, underscoring the steep odds facing President Barack Obama's foray into peacemaking.
Israelis and Palestinians disagree over title and control to Jerusalem; whether generations of Palestinian refugees should be permitted to return; security guarantees demanded by Israel; and much more.
Even if the politicians and diplomats could craft compromises on those emotional issues, groups intent on killing any deal are waiting in the wings. They include Iranian leaders; Jewish settlers determined to expand their hold on the contested West Bank; and the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and challenges Abbas' leadership.
"The fundamental problem isn't a problem of diplomacy," but one of "politics," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Abbas and Netanyahu agreed to meet again on Sept. 14-15, and roughly two weeks thereafter, Mitchell told reporters. They also agreed to begin work on a "framework agreement," he said, which would "establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable them to flesh out and complete a comprehensive (peace) treaty."
The first session is likely to be at Sharm al Sheikh, Egypt, other aides said.
The talks, already rattled by Hamas-claimed attacks on Jewish settlers this week, face a potential crisis point when the settlements moratorium expires. Abbas, backed by Arab nations, says he'll suspend participation in the talks if Israel resumes settlement construction.
U.S. and Israeli officials wouldn't say whether a compromise on the issue is in the offing.
"We expect (the negotiations) to go longer than one or two meetings," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Obama, along with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, has set a highly ambitious one-year timetable for a treaty ending a conflict that's lasted nearly a century.
Skepticism abounds. It was 17 years ago this month that Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed an agreement on the South Lawn of the White House. In it, the PLO recognized Israel in return for limited self-government.
Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli two years later, and the hopes for peace were dashed by mutual recriminations, continued expansion of Israeli settlements and a violent Palestinian revolt that began in 2000.
In 2010, "you obviously cannot say the odds are great. . . . Is this just another round, let's try again anyway?" said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who informally advises the Obama administration.
Telhami argued that two things have changed: Both sides realize this may be the last chance for a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama, believing U.S. security interests are at stake, has gotten involved earlier than his predecessors.
Israelis and Palestinians "have reached the end of the line on the pursuit of a two-state solution. They're either going to do it or not," Telhami said.
Secondly, "you have a president of the United States who, at least in principle, understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace is an American national interest," he said. "There's a seriousness . . . this is not just a superficial engagement."
Mitchell, asked what the administration was doing differently than its predecessors, cited only one specific: It's starting earlier. Other presidents "ran out of time at the end," he said.
Telhami and others said progress will demand aggressive intervention by Obama himself when the talks threaten to break down.
Clinton and Mitchell will attend the mid-September round of talks; Obama won't. The president hosted Middle East leaders at the White House on Monday and spoke recently with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Saudi King Abdullah.
At a brief, ceremonial opening session at the State Department, Netanyahu said peace would require painful concessions. "From my side, and from your side," he said, gesturing to Abbas. He said he was ready "to go a long way in a short time."
He reiterated demands that a final peace deal include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish nation-state," and take into account Israel's security needs.
Abbas had demands of his own: that Israel "end all settlement activity" and lift its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. "We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we are facing," he said, yet "the road is clear in front of us."
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