Analysis: Peace talks flicker back to life in Mideast storm

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 11, 2012 10:18 AM
Analysis: Peace talks flicker back to life in Mideast storm

By Ali Sawafta and Jihan Abdalla

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Uncertainty sweeping the Middle East is raising pressure to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and tackle one big problem in the region that major powers believe they could, just, fix - given enough trust on both sides.

The next two weeks may be crucial. Negotiators from the two sides are already holding exploratory talks under the auspices of Jordan's King Abdullah, who will visit U.S. President Barack Obama next week to discuss the latest developments.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will travel to London, Berlin and Moscow -- key stops to talk to members of the so-called Quartet of peacemaking powers pressing him to restart negotiations with Israel.

He suspended talks 15 months ago over Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Abbas, 76, is seeking to "garner support for the Palestinians and enlighten the leaders of the respective countries on developments," his spokesman said Wednesday.

The Quartet wants the two sides to state their positions on the borders and security arrangements of a future "two-state solution" by January 26, opening the door to a resumption of talks.

Setting yet another Middle East peace deadline meets with familiar cynicism. But this promises to be no ordinary year.

With Syria deep in crisis and Egypt in upheaval as popular revolt shakes the Arab world, the ground is shifting fast.

"It would be great to inject some element of certainty," Britain's Middle East minister Alistair Burt said in the region this week, with characteristic English understatement.

SEMANTICS

After a year of deadlock in 2011, the door has opened a crack to a potential fresh start to peace talks.

"In the case that we achieve anything in the dual meetings, we will sit with his Majesty King Abdullah II and we will discuss all these elements and agree on all the steps," Abbas said in Amman Tuesday after talks with the monarch.

"We must not be pessimistic or optimistic ... we have to use this opportunity and opportunities regardless of how hopeless they seem. There will be more meetings until January 26. We hope that we will be able to return to a legal basis that would allow us to return to negotiations."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems under no pressure domestically to say what is going on in Amman, where sources say both sides have agreed that only Jordan will make statements.

But Abbas is under scrutiny from his supporters and critics.

Palestinian analysts say that, whatever semantic contortions Abbas may use to show he has not caved in on his demand for a freeze on Israeli settlement building, the "discovery" meetings in Jordan amount to a tentative resumption of talks.

The question is whether they can advance any further.

"The 26th of January remains a decisive day," said Hanan Ashrawi, former negotiator with Israel and top official of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.

"The Americans are busy with their upcoming elections and have left the issue of peacemaking to the Quartet, to manage the conflict rather than resolve it," Ashrawi said. "And the Quartet hasn't really produced any new approach or innovative ideas."

"The Israelis have not in any way responded to the Quartet's request to present their positions vis a vis borders and security, and they want to deal only with security," she said.

The Quartet comprises the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

UNSUSTAINABLE

Britain's Burt said "we know the expectations from the talks are not great." But he added: "We are urging the parties to look for common ground and keep on going ... we can see on both sides a determination to get somewhere."

Middle East diplomacy going back 20 years is replete with stock phrases. One is that "the status quo is unsustainable." In 2012, this warning may be amplified by the forces unleashed by the "Arab Spring," whose ultimate outcome no one knows.

The militant strain of Palestinian nationalism represented by the Gaza-based Islamist movement Hamas is feeling the wind in its sails from the success of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt, and its hardliners say Abbas's peacemaking is doomed.

Israel is wary of a chill wind from the new Egypt dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that could sour the peace treaty it made with Cairo in 1979.

Israel's only other Arab peace partner, Jordan, is also under pressure from the street for reform.

There is no guarantee that a new sense of urgency can bridge the inborn mistrust between Israeli and Palestinians.

PLO executive committee member Tayseer Khaled said:

"There is a near unanimity among the factions of the PLO that the Netanyahu government wants to gain time, and to throw us into an endless cycle of political maneuvers in order to evade the responsibilities of a serious political track that begins with stopping settlement building and ends with the agreement on borders and security."

By coincidence, the Palestinian daily Al Quds reprinted on Wednesday an article from exactly 20 years ago.

Its headline: "Arab-Israeli sources in Washington: Talks to begin tomorrow amid assurances of progress in resolving differences."

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Edited by Richard Meares)