The first direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 20 months begin today in Washington with a White House dinner. Thursday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the middle, the leaders of both sides will begin the hard work of reaching a peace deal. The White House said such a deal is achievable "within a one-year time frame," an ambitious goal for a problem that has evaded resolution for decades. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, arrive in Washington with one eye on their fragile support at home but also an awareness that pressure to reach an agreement from inside and outside may never have been greater.
What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish with this first round of direct talks?
One basic goal is to get both sides to agree to keep talking. It is hoped that after this round of talks is done, new talks somewhere in the Middle East would be scheduled in two weeks.
But as David Ignatius notes in the Washington Post, "even achieving that modest goal is not a given: First, the two sides have to find their way past what one negotiator calls the 'barrier reef' of Sept. 26'' when Israel's 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction is set to end.
Is there reason to think they can meet the one-year timetable?
Pessimism always seems the safest bet.
"There is no Israeli/Palestinian peace process, nor has there been for 16 years since the Israeli/Jordan agreement," writes Tim Marshall, foreign news editor for Britain's Sky News. "Although there is a continuous action of meetings, bilaterals, proximity talks, protocols, summits and initiatives, there is no 'series of changes' toward peace taking place in a definite manner."
Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller said in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that a "quick, decisive outcome may not be possible" but that it is important to take a longer view.
"After 20 months of flapping around, bringing together Israelis and Palestinians under very difficult circumstances, knowing that they can negotiate under great constraint in what could nevertheless be serious negotiations — that is the proper perspective," Miller said.
The best argument for optimism may be that the stakes are so high — for the two leaders, but also for Obama, who risks failure and a possible increase in violence just as he enters a re-election campaign.
"This may be Obama's secret weapon, the fact that he needs a win so badly right now," writes the Post's Ignatius, who points out that Israel doesn't benefit by a weakened president at the helm of its key ally. "Another American failure would be scary — especially for Israel."
What are the major stumbling blocks?
There are two big ones: Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Hamas.
Obama got the Israelis to agree to the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction last year. Palestinians have made extending the moratorium a condition of participating in the negotiations. Netanyahu has reassured his most conservative supporters that he has not agreed to any such extension.
Can a compromise be reached in Washington? Would Netanyahu agree to stop new construction in most of the West Bank in exchange for permission to continue building in the parts of East Jerusalem that many think would be retained by Israel if a separate Palestinian state were agreed to? Would Abbas agree to such a deal, knowing that East Jerusalem has long been designated by Palestinians as the capital of their new state?
Hamas is perhaps a bigger challenge. The Islamist movement and U.S.-designated terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip is the "ghost at the table," writes Tobias Buck in the Financial Times. Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, remains resolutely opposed to any diplomatic efforts. Its refusal to unite with the moderate Fatah movement means that Abbas cannot claim to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.
"The schism would pose an even greater problem if the talks defy all expectations and produce a comprehensive peace accord," Buck writes. "Mr. Abbas would lack the ability to implement any such agreement."