US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who hosted the first session of talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, expressed confidence that this effort could succeed where so many others have failed.
President Barack Obama, aiming to resolve one of the world’s most intractable disputes, has set a goal of striking a deal within 12 months to create an independent Palestinian state that exists peacefully, side-by-side with the Jewish state. “This will not be easy,” Netanyahu said. “A true peace, a lasting peace, would be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides.”
Despite widespread skepticism about the chances of this latest attempt to bring peace to the region and the shooting of Jewish settlers by Hamas militants in the West Bank this week, Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to meet again on Sept. 14-15 with Clinton also present.
Diplomats said that meeting will take place in Egypt, which with Jordan is a key Arab backer of the current peace push.
The two sides agreed to meet every two weeks thereafter, US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell said. The agreement to continue talks marked a small step forward although a dispute over Jewish settlements on occupied West Bank land could halt progress in its tracks.
“We are convinced that if you move forward in good faith and do not waver in your commitment to succeed on behalf of your people, we can resolve all of the core issues within one year,” Clinton told Netanyahu and Abbas as the talks began. “You have the opportunity to end this conflict and the decades of enmity between your peoples once and for all.”
The two leaders, who appeared to be developing some rapport, shook hands after the formal start of the talks in an ornate State Department reception room, marking the resumption of direct dialogue that last broke off in 2008. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have said they want a “two-state solution.” But both are hobbled by domestic political challenges, putting prospects for a final deal in question.
Abbas again called on Israel to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip and stop settlement activity. But he also said the Palestinians recognized the need for security, a key Israeli demand amplified by this week’s shootings in the West Bank. “We want to state our commitment to follow on all our ... engagements, including security and ending incitement,” Abbas said. The hard-line Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, rejected the peace talks and said it would keep attacking Israelis. Four Israelis were killed and two injured in two separate attacks in the occupied West Bank this week.
Jewish settler groups, meanwhile, vowed to push ahead with new construction in occupied areas of the West Bank, underscoring a central sticking point that threatens to derail the negotiations just weeks after they begin. Netanyahu and Abbas appeared to be in a conciliatory public mood on Thursday. They met together with Clinton for more than an hour, and then privately one-on-one for about 90 minutes, US officials said.
The talks may hit their first road block when Israel’s partial freeze on building new settler homes on the West Bank is set to expire on Sept. 26. Abbas has said he will pull out of the talks unless Israel extends the self-imposed moratorium, a step that will be tough for Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties who want to start building again immediately. Abbason Thursday again told Netanyahu he would pull out of talks if settlement construction resumed, a senior Palestinian official said.
“We’ll try our best but that will all be torpedoed if Mr. Netanyahu goes back to settlements,” Palestinian adviser Nabil Shaath told Reuters. But Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties committed to settlement expansion, has appeared reluctant to extend the building moratorium.
The Palestinians say that the settlements are a direct threat to their hopes to achieve a homeland on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a goal that has eluded them since Israel was founded in 1948.
About half a million Jewish settlers live in communities scattered over the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and claim a biblical link to West Bank land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Major world powers regard the settlements as illegal and a threat to peace. Mitchell said both sides agreed the talks were sensitive and would therefore release little information about details. He declined to offer specifics when asked if the settlement issue had been discussed.
But Mitchell -- who has spent months shuttling between the two sides to coax them into talks -- said they agreed the first step would be to work up a “framework agreement” to establish the parameters of a deal.
Israeli soldier charged for looting Mavi Marmara
The Israeli military has announced that a soldier has been charged with looting the lead ship in a Gaza blockade-busting flotilla stopped by Israeli naval commandos in a bloody raid at the end of May. The military said in a statement that the soldier is accused of stealing equipment from the Mavi Marmara ship, which is owned by a Turkish charity, after it was towed to an Israeli port. The statement late Thursday said the soldier’s actions “directly contradict the Israeli military’s moral standards.” The May 31 attack by Israeli security forces on the Gaza humanitarian aid convoy took place in international waters and ended with the killing of one Turkish-American and eight Turkish civilians on board the Mavi Marmara. Turkey has demanded an apology from Israel, while Israel says the soldiers fired on activists to defend themselves. The bloody raid set off an outcry and forced Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening Gaza’s Hamas rulers and preventing weapons shipments. Israeli media reported earlier this week, in addition to the military statement on the soldier subject, that indictments are expected to be filed against two other suspects in the coming days, while it noted that one of the suspects is an officer. According a report by Ynetnews, an online English-language Israeli news portal, the soldiers involved are expected to be charged with looting, theft, dealing in stolen property and behavior unbefitting of a soldier. Ankara Today’s Zaman with AP