Mideast peace? Nothing to it

All they have to do is overcome six decades of history and bad blood

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sometimes it takes a hawk to make peace, especially in the Middle East. Menachem Begin was the proof of that, and he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat for the breakthrough recognition of Israel by Egypt in return for the territories the Israelis took in the Six Day War of 1967.

Now Benjamin Netanyahu is reaching for Begin's mantle, in the bold and high-risk peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. This is principals at the table, not officials, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In front of the entire world.

For openers, they walked down the red carpet into the East Room of the White House, after separate bilateral meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Nor did anyone miss the symbolic importance of them being accompanied down the carpet by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, the successors of Sadat and King Hussein, the only two countries in the region that have made peace with Israel.

Netanyahu spoke of Abbas as his "partner in peace," and later said both sides would have to make painful compromises. As the leader of Likud, Netanyahu has his right flank covered. He has room to offer significant concessions for peace, supported by Labour and Defence Minister Ehud Barak on the left.

Following the diplomatic stagecraft in the East Room, the five leaders went off to a working dinner at the White House, followed the next day by the beginning of talks chaired by Clinton at the State Department. Next stop, Cairo. There is a one-year timeline on the talks.

There are two rules of any negotiation -first nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon; but second, agree on the easy things first, and try to build momentum toward a breakthrough.

Except that in the Middle East, nothing is easy. The burden of history, the sense of grievance, the legacy of failure, all these ghosts are in the room.

Just as a reminder of what a tinder box the region can be, Hamas gunned down four Israelis in one of the West Bank settlements. And the entire peace process could come to nothing very quickly if Netanyahu lifts a moratorium on further settlements at the end of this month. For Abbas, that would be an obvious deal breaker.

The last time talks were engaged at this level was at Camp David in 2000. The choice of venue by Bill Clinton was no coincidence -it was the site of the talks led by Jimmy Carter, resulting in the historic Camp David Accords between Sadat and Begin. And it was here, a decade ago, that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat left a lot of money on the table, when he walked away from a deal that included shared jurisdiction of East Jerusalem. Barak, who was then Israeli prime minister, saw support for his Labour government crater under the force of a Palestinian intifada sparked by Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount. The 10 years since have been a lost decade of roadmaps that became roads to failure.

The Americans have engaged at this level at the reported insistence of Netanyahu, and had to persuade Abbas that direct talks between principals were worth the obvious risks of failure.

Hillary Clinton's role could be pivotal -she's smart, tough, is known for mastering her briefs and finding common ground. And she has an established level of trust with both sides. She might be able to keep Netanyahu and Abbas in the room, but it will be up to them to seize the opportunities and create the momentum for peace.

Low expectations have been raised somewhat by the pomp and circumstance of the Washington launch of the talks.

But each side will have the same bottom line -mutual recognition in a two-state settlement.

Netanyahu and the Israelis want a guarantee that rockets won't be located in the Palestinian state as they have been under the control of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Then he wants a complete end to the conflict and recognition of the Jewish state of Israel.

For Abbas, the end of Israeli settlements on the West Bank would be close to the top of his list. Jerusalem would be there, too. And not to forget, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland in today's Israel. Going all the way back to 1948.

Nothing to it. Just six decades of history to overcome.

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