Quite how Clinton and Obama have managed to get both sides to agree to meet around a table is beyond me. We all know that Abbas has been under pressure from his own side and that Netanyahu is part of a government of right wing Israelis who have no interest in coming to any deal with the Palestinians, so getting the two of them to agree to meet at all is little short of miraculous.
Israel and the Palestinians are to resume direct peace talks next month under pressure from Washington to break years of political stalemate.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would meet in Washington on 2 September to "relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues which we believe can be completed within one year".
Netanyahu welcomed the talks.
"We are coming to these talks with a serious desire to reach a peace agreement between nations, while still preserving Israel's national interests, security being the foremost of them," he said.
I personally don't think peace will be possible until Netanyahu and the other Israeli right wingers are voted out of office. This group of people believe in Eretz Israel, so it's hard to imagine any set of circumstances in which they are going to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith.
Clinton said the Egyptian and Jordanian leadership had also been invited to the opening of the negotiations, with Tony Blair, the envoy for the quartet of the US, UN, EU and Russia, "in view of his important work to help Palestinians build the institutions of their future state".
"As we move forward it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort not hinder it. There have been difficulties in the past. There will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region," Clinton said.
The US said all main issues would be on the table, including the difficult final status questions of the borders of a Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
No matter how many doubts all of us have about the likelihood of this resulting in success or failure, it is a breakthrough - after the shameful stalemate of the Bush years and his Roadmap to Nowhere - to see Obama and Clinton forcing both sides to re-engage and emphasising, once again, that it is "in the national security interests of the United States" that these negotiations be successful. That implies that the Unites States has it's own agenda for requiring peace, as opposed to being there simply to voice the Israeli position. That's a welcome change from previous Israeli and Palestinian meetings. For once the US just might be able to earn the title of honest broker.
The US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, said he believed it was realistic to include a one-year deadline to resolve core issues on which neither side has been able to reach agreement since the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
"We believe it can be done within a year and that is our objective," he said. Netanyahu and Abbas were "sincere and serious" about peace, he added, and Washington would take a hands-on role in guiding the talks because it was "in the national security interests of the United States".
It is the steepest climb up the highest mountain, but both Clinton and Obama deserve to be congratulated for even getting both sides to agree to meet at the table.
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