Israeli and Palestinian leaders have cleared the first hurdle in what promises to be difficult negotiations, vowing to try to settle core differences within a year and meet every two weeks.
In opening some four hours of talks in Washington on Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the “suspicion and skepticism” leading up to the meetings after scores of previous US administrations tried and failed to help resolve the decades-old Middle East conflict.
“I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy,” said Clinton, flanked by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a chandeliered room at the State Department. “Thank you for your courage and commitment.”
The next round of talks was set for Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 in Egypt, possibly in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. More negotiations are due every two weeks after that, after the leaders agreed they could achieve a peace deal within a year.
However, Netanyahu returned home yesterday to confront internal opposition to his peace moves, just as Abbas faced harsh criticism for agreeing to the talks at all. Netanyahu did not speak to reporters on his plane or at the airport.
In Washington, he had talked of creating a Palestinian state, a phrase he uttered for the first time just last year after strident opposition to the concept for two decades, and called for “mutual and painful concessions from both sides.”
Most Israeli analysts admitted to not knowing what was really on Netanyahu’s mind. Writing from Washington, veteran Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea was uncharacteristically ambivalent.
“If this was just for show, Netanyahu played it well,” Barnea wrote. “But perhaps this was not only a show. Not this time.”
Netanyahu’s Likud Party has been among the strongest backers of Israel keeping much or all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem and expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
Concessions of the type Netanyahu indicated, like giving up parts of the West Bank, while not sufficient for the Palestinians, would likely bring down his coalition government or force him to replace his hawkish partners with moderates.
Gilad Erdan, a Likud Cabinet minister, said Netanyahu would forge a middle path. He told Israel Radio that Netanyahu is committed to keeping as much of the West Bank as possible while finding a solution for living with the Palestinians.
“But the prime minister, unlike previous leaders, will not sign fictitious agreements that instead of bringing peace, brought terrorism and led to thousands of rockets being fired at us,” Erdan said.
Abbas has threatened to pull out of the talks if Netanyahu does not extend a partial West Bank settlement construction freeze set to expire at the end of the month.
Palestinian political activist Mustafa Barghouti joined a demonstration against resumption of the talks, though he has supported peace efforts in the past. He charged that Israel’s settlement construction is sabotaging chances for peace.
“We fear that all sides are losing the last opportunity for a two-state solution [of a Palestinian state next to Israel] … What we heard [in Washington] did not change our minds at all,” he said yesterday.
Barghouti said Abbas is in a weaker position now than any other Palestinian leader who has opened peace talks with Israel because of internal opposition to his concessions from elements of Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization as well as radicals like Hamas.