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As peace talks begin, no one at the table is strong enough, or lucky enough, to make it happen.
So if the stars do not appear to be aligned for a successful round of peace talks, why would the Obama administration plunge into them?
The kind interpretation is that the administration naively believes that it might create a positive momentum in the region by taking on three vexing issues in the Middle East at the same time: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ethnic-divisions in Iraq and the need to contain Iran. Once again, Obama should be talking to the husband of his secretary of state for some history on this. President Clinton tried this strategy and it was known then as “dual containment" with Iraq and Iran. When the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed it all came apart like a cheap suit.
The less kind interpretation as to why the Obama administration is taking this on now is that it simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and there are quite a few experts in the Middle East who would see it this way.
The administration’s diplomatic and strategic leadership, even the patient and hard-working Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, may simply fail to understand the uniquely volatile nature of his new assignment. If Mitchell thinks the same kind of dogged efforts -- and his reliance on a fixed deadline to force the parties together -- that helped him with the Good Friday agreement can be replicated in Israel-Palestine, most analysts of the region would say he is sorely mistaken. Sadly, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict setting, a hard time table is not like turning over a diplomatic hour glass, it is more akin to setting a slow burning fuse that too often explodes into more violence.
Still, history is made by those who are willing to do what none thought could be done.
And so with new hope that history might be in the making, yet another chapter in the long tortured and tedious history of the Middle East peace process is set to begin as Obama, along with Netanyahu and Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, gather for a series of talks over the next two days. Today, the talks will take place in the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presiding over the forum.
The first hurdle is whether Israel will agree to extend the moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank that is set to expire on Sept. 26. Abbas has said the talks would fall apart if Israel fails in this regard. And after that hurdle comes the threat from Hamas and whether Abbas’ security services will be able to contain the movement’s attacks on Israel and the settlements.
Then, even if they can get past these immediate issues, the looming issues of establishing the boundaries of a two-state solution, the pressing issue of whether Palestinians will ever have the “right of return” to land occupied after the 1967 Six Day War and, of course, the eternal question of control of the holy city of Jerusalem.
With all of these challenges before the leaders who are coming to the bargaining table, it’s obvious that none of us, not even those who truly hope for peace, should be holding our breath.