Q+A: Direct Mideast talks come into view – can they succeed?

(BestGrowthStock) – World powers will shortly invite Israelis and Palestinians to begin direct peace talks on September 2 in Washington, a diplomatic source has told Reuters.

It is the latest attempt by U.S.-led diplomacy to resolve the Middle East conflict, but few people in Israel or the Palestinian territories see much chance of success.

WHAT IS THE SUGGESTED TIMEFRAME FOR A DEAL?

The Quartet of world powers which oversees the peace process — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — said in a document seen by Reuters on Thursday that it hoped direct talks could lead to a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within 12 months.

“We probably won’t have a better opportunity than we have right now. And that has to be seized,” Obama said in a July interview with Israel’s Channel 2, adding that he thought a deal could be reached during his term, which expires in 2013.

The United States wants to start talks quickly, but a partial 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank is due to end on September 26, posing a potentially fatal threat to any dialogue.

WHAT ARE THE STUMBLING BLOCKS?

Palestinian leaders are downbeat about the chances of a breakthrough on core issues such as the settlements, the status of Jerusalem or the borders of any new Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he does not believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to make a deal he can accept. Netanyahu has said he would confound skeptics. But his own party and some of his coalition allies oppose major concessions and support Jewish settlement on occupied Palestinian land.

Ahead of any direct talks, Abbas had sought a full settlement freeze. He also wanted an idea of the shape and size of the Palestinian state Netanyahu envisages alongside Israel.

Indirect, “proximity” talks mediated by the United States since May failed to make headway on those issues.

The Palestinians say Washington must exert pressure on Israel if negotiations are to succeed, but with U.S. mid-term congressional elections due in November, Obama is unlikely to risk antagonizing the U.S. Jewish lobby.

In Israel, some question the value of negotiating with Abbas, who exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. He lost control of the separate Gaza Strip in 2007 to the Hamas group, which opposes his peace strategy and direct talks with Israel. This means that even if there was a deal, Abbas might find it impossible to sell the accord to many of his own Palestinians.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN PAST TALKS?

The history of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which got under way in the early 1990s, does not inspire much hope. Faith in the peace process has deteriorated on both sides.

Israelis point to Palestinian violence, including rocket attacks from Gaza, as a sign the Palestinians do not want peace.

Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation point to their own experience of violence by the Israeli military and the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land as signs that Israel does not want peace.

In 2000, former U.S. President Bill Clinton failed to forge a deal between the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister. Diplomacy collapsed into violence as the second Palestinian Intifada erupted and subsequent efforts to revive talks fizzled out.

ARE PEACE-MAKING CONDITIONS ANY BETTER NOW?

The task of Middle East peace making has grown more complicated with time. For starters, diplomats are confronted with a more complicated political landscape on both sides.

Among the Palestinians, Abbas, elected president in 2005, does not command the same following as Arafat. He has lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, which is opposed to any permanent peace deal with Israel.

Abbas says there can be no state without Palestinian reconciliation, something which Palestinian analysts believe can happen only with the consent of foreign powers that have influence over the rival Palestinian groups.

Iranian support for Hamas has made it harder for the United States and its Arab allies to exert the kind of influence they used to over the Palestinians.

In Israel, the violence unleashed by the Intifada strengthened right-wing parties. Netanyahu’s coalition includes far-right politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.

But Obama, in his July interview with Channel 2, said: “The fact that he (Netanyahu) is not perceived as a dove, in some ways can be helpful,” in uniting Israelis behind a deal.

SO WHY ARE THE PARTIES MAKING THE EFFORT?

The Obama administration has described the conflict as “a vital national security interest.” U.S. General David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in March that tensions between Israel and the Palestinians had an “enormous” effect where U.S. forces operate in the Muslim world.

Neither Israel or the Palestinians want to appear to be obstacles to U.S. policy, each for their own reasons.

Israel, its ties with Obama’s administration strained earlier this year by settlement policy, wants to avoid more tension with its closest ally. Israel wants to ensure smooth sailing on efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear project.

Abbas, by far the weaker party, says he has faced unprecedented pressure to resume negotiations from the Western states which provide his aid-dependent administration with financial and political support.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Crispian Balmer)

Q+A: Direct Mideast talks come into view – can they succeed?