News Column

Palestinians, Israelis Return to Talks

July 29, 2013

Taylor Luck, dpa

Expectations remain low as Palestinian and Israeli officials head to Washington to revive peace talks, analysts say, arguing that the two sides remain plagued by the same political and philosophical differences that resulted in an impasse in previous efforts.

Later Monday, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are among the top officials who will direct "final-status" negotiations for the first time in more than three years - the move representing a breakthrough in months of US shuttle diplomacy.

Yet, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement earlier this month that both the Israelis and Palestinians have narrowed "wide gaps" over the peace talks, the two sides remain divided by the same issues that doomed previous attempts to restart negotiations earlier in the Obama administration.

Palestinian officials contend that they enter the talks under the understanding that so-called "final-status" issues such as borders, the release of political prisoners and the right of return of more than 4 million refugees will be addressed at the onset of the talks, with Israel freezing all settlement activity.

Although the Israeli government Sunday approved a proposal to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, Israeli officials have denied making any concessions prior to the talks.

Government spokesman Mark Regev has stressed that Israel has not agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.

"The expectations of the parameters of the talks and what, if any, concessions have been made by either side is still unclear to both Palestinians and Israelis," said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli diplomat and researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Among the stumbling blocks are the domestic political restraints limiting the amount of concessions both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can make and the type of peace deals they will pursue.

Netanyahu will most likely seek a series of short-term security and economic "arrangements" more palatable to his right-wing coalition government, which largely opposes a two-state solution, said analyst Yoram Metial.

Meanwhile, Abbas will push for the immediate establishment of an independent state to shore up a sceptical Palestinian public, he added.

"When Netanyahu and Abbas talk about a peace settlement, in reality they are speaking about two completely different and contradicting concepts," said Metial, chairman of the Tel Aviv-based Chaim Herzog Centre for Middle East Studies.

"How can these talks succeed when the two parties are seeking completely different results?"

A major obstacle is what observers call a "lack of urgency" behind the proceedings.

Rather than returning to negotiations out of mutual interest to end the decades-old conflict, analysts say the Israelis and Palestinians have largely agreed to return to talks because of pressure from the United States and their regional allies.

"These negotiations are the direct result of US attempts to regain its credibility in the Middle East and not a true desire for peace," says Mohammed Abu Rumman of the University of Jordan Centre for Strategic Studies.

"Until the talks come out of the desire of the Palestinians and Israelis themselves, and not just the Americans, they can never succeed," he told dpa.

Disagreements among the Palestinians themselves threaten prospects for the negotiations.

Despite two years of attempts to implement the so-called reconciliation between Abbas' secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian leadership remains divided, with Abbas entering into this week's talks unilaterally.

Should the two sides near a settlement, analysts warn that Israel's scepticism over Abbas' ability to ensure Hamas' abidance by any agreement will likely sink the talks.

"No matter how much goodwill both sides show, all it will take is one rocket from Gaza to take us back to square one," Oraib Rintawi of the Amman-based al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, told dpa.

Perhaps the largest challenge to successful negotiations are the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Despite Kerry's assurances that the talks will be carried out discreetly to ensure their success, the ongoing secrecy shrouding the negotiations will work to their detriment by depriving Israeli and Palestinian leaders of the opportunity to convince their respective public of the need for a peace settlement.

"The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have yet to go to the public and convince them that peace is in their best interest," said Meital of the Chaim Herzog Centre.

He added: "Until there is a change in mentality between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, no talks - no matter the pressure - will succeed."

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Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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