Hope must spring eternal when contemplating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The alternative is continued death and destruction and the possibility of a wider conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Thus, it is with a measure of hope that we watch the latest round of Mideast negotiations that began Wednesday, acutely aware of the tensions that exist and the skepticism that abounds.
Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners as an initial gesture deserves public acknowledgment. The release was part of an agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to get the two sides back to the table for peace talks that have been paralyzed since 2008.
In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four batches, although their freedom is contingent on the progress in the negotiations in Jerusalem. A preparatory round was held two weeks ago in Washington.
But while the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making this grand gesture, it also announced the approval of plans for 900 housing units in Gilo, an area in East Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. There was an earlier announcement of some 1,200 other settlement homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Secretary of State Kerry has called the settlements on the disputed land “illegitimate,” but said he did not think they would undermine the talks.
However, the Palestinians were quick to condemn the announcement of the new settlements and warned that they were “not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome,” in the words of Hanan Ashrawi. a senior Palestinian official.
While the skeptics of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians have reacted with their usual negativity, advocates of a Middle East free of war are hoping that cooler heads prevail.
Negotiators from the two sides, as well as Mideast peace envoy Martin Indyk and deputy special envoy Frank Lowenstein of the United States, met Wednesday afternoon in an undisclosed location in Jerusalem; a later session will be held in the West Bank. This round is expected to last at least nine months — if the Israelis and Palestinians are able to avoid the pitfalls that have undermined previous attempts at forging a lasting peace.
The first round of negotiations, held July 31 in Washington, was the first major effort since negotiations broke down five years ago.
In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Washington to discuss “final status settlement” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by implementing a two-state solution: the establishment of a state for the Palestinian people and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Unfortunately — but true to form — the direct talks collapsed in September of that year.
Just about every impediment to a peace agreement has reared its ugly head at one time or another. Every president since Harry S. Truman has tried to bring peace to the Middle East, and while there have been varying degrees of commitment and the appropriate responses from the parties, the ultimate goal remains elusive.
President Obama, who will be leaving office at the end of 2016, would no doubt like to add a Middle East peace treaty to his success in getting rid of Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaida and the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America’s mainland.
But there’s not much he can do beyond urging the Israelis and Palestinians to continue meeting even if the outcome seems beyond reach.