WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is shepherding Mideast talks this week that she says may be the last chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the region, planned to be in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for talks Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
They’re scheduled to shift to Jerusalem for a second day of talks Wednesday, and it’s likely that Obama will resume negotiations with Abbas and Netanyahu in New York the following week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The most immediate obstacle for negotiators is a Palestinian demand that Israel extend a curb on new housing construction in the West Bank – a constraint that Israel says will expire Sept. 26.
The Palestinians have insisted that without an extension, the peace talks will go nowhere.
Raising the pressure, Obama said Friday that he has urged the Israeli leader to extend the partial moratorium as long as talks are making progress. Obama also said he’s told Abbas that if he shows he’s serious about negotiating, it will give political maneuver room for Netanyahu to take the domestically unpopular step of extending the limits on settlements.
Abbas knows “the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing,” Obama said.
Clinton’s task, he said, is to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “start thinking about how can they help the other succeed, as opposed to how do they figure out a way for the other to fail.”
Previewing the upcoming talks, Clinton said “there is a certain momentum” after an initial round in Washington on Sept. 2., which marked the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in nearly two years.
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In an appearance this past week at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton was asked why those who see little chance of reaching a settlement in the one-year deadline Obama has set are wrong.
“I think they’re wrong because I think that both sides and both leaders recognize that there may not ever be another chance,” she replied.
The “last chance” notion is based in part on the knowledge that Abbas is living on borrowed time, in a political sense. His electoral mandate expired in 2009 and he fears a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, which is supposed to make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state.
Time is a motivating factor for the Israelis, too. Some Israelis believe the longer that Israel occupies the West Bank and its growing Arab population, the more Israel’s future as a Jewish state is imperiled. Creating a sovereign Palestine would get Israel out of the occupation business.
More broadly, the status quo is a drag on U.S. interests. The wars and grievances that flowed from Israel’s 1948 founding as a Jewish state have divided the Middle East, and U.S. officials have argued that the conflict begets hatred and suspicion of the U.S. as Israel’s principal ally.
Obama wants a deal within a year; Israelis are deeply skeptical after decades of failed efforts.
Netanyahu acknowledges the widespread doubts.
“There are many obstacles, many skeptics, and many reasons for skepticism,” he said in a Jewish new year address last Tuesday. He called the resumed negotiations “an important step in an attempt” to make peace, but added that it “is an attempt because there is no certainty of success.”
One concern of all the parties to the talks is Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that refuses to negotiate and opposes Israel’s very existence. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state along with most of the West Bank.
Michele Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it appears the talks will go nowhere until the two sides, with Clinton’s help, can find a compromise solution to the settlements issue.
“That’s probably going to have to be the first item on the agenda,” she said in a telephone interview. “The first priority is to make sure that the talks don’t collapse at the end of September.”
She gives the current format for negotiations about six months before the U.S. will have to either give up or put forth its own peace plan and try to rally support for it from moderate Arab states.