By
updated 9/27/2010 4:47:24 PM ET 2010-09-27T20:47:24

Less than a month after they began, Middle East peace talks are in trouble over Israel's refusal to extend its 10-month-old curbs on new West Bank settlement — in defiance of President Barack Obama's explicit request, delivered last week at the United Nations.

A magic formula may yet be found, and the Palestinians, despite threats to bolt the talks, may in the end resign themselves to the renewal of limited construction. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has given last-ditch talks another week — and then the 22-member Arab League convenes, presumably to give the Palestinians cover for any decision they take.

Whatever happens then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's willingness to risk a breakdown of talks so supposedly crucial, embarrassing the U.S. leader at so inopportune a time, raises questions whether he can deliver the much more far-reaching concessions Israel would have to make to end a century of conflict.

Why wasn't ban renewed?
Why did Netanyahu do it?

It's a matter of credibility, goes the official line. Since the day he declared the settlement "moratorium" in November 2009, Netanyahu has repeatedly asserted it was a one-time gesture. Aides say he must stick to his word.

In local political caricature, one charge that has stuck to Netanyahu is that he buckles under pressure. Heading into negotiations where he'll be pressed to shed his very core beliefs, Netanyahu needs to jettison that image.

  1. Related content
    1. Mideast talks in turmoil as building curbs end
    2. Israeli settlement slowdown ends; talk push goes on
    3. Abbas vows peace, urges settlement end
    4. Mideast peace talks open to qualified optimism
    5. Analysis: Mideast talks? Deja vu, anyone?
    6. Mideast peace talks: Key players and issues
    7. Gunmen kill four Israelis in West Bank

Then there is the governing coalition, where an overwhelming majority opposes extending the "freeze." This includes Netanyahu's own Likud Party — the senior coalition member — as well as partners such as Yisrael Beiteinu, the hard-line party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.

Whether they would actually bring Netanyahu down now is an open question. Disgruntled pro-settler parties have done this in the past, over lesser affronts to their cause: to Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and to Netanyahu himself in 1999. Both times they ended up with a moderate government they liked even less, but neither outcome produced much game-changing introspection.

Still, it seems as if Netanyahu could have protected himself against political extortion by securing the support of the centrist Kadima Party, which is about equal to Likud in numbers of parliament members.

Its leader, Tzipi Livni — despite an acrimonious personal relationship with the premier — said again this week that she would support peace moves, and she would find it difficult not to back Netanyahu at least tacitly when he's taking risks for peace.

Apparant gamble
Ultimately, Netanyahu appears to have gambled that he didn't need to upset his partners — and a core constituency like the settlers — over this particular issue, so early in what promises to be a tough political season.

In governing circles, the thinking — or hope — is that while Obama may be angry, he'll take no punitive action that would alienate U.S. supporters of Israel with midterm elections two months away.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell would depart Washington on Monday evening and meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials later in the week. He said the administration is "disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective."

"Obama took a big risk, and if these talks collapse before November, it will hurt him politically," said Alon Liel, a left-leaning analyst and former senior diplomat. "Israel is a strong country militarily and economically and cannot be pressured too much. Obama has gone above and beyond, and there's a limit."

In other words: Why risk alienating a powerful group like U.S. supporters of Israel — if even the Palestinians are ultimately going along?

Indeed, the moratorium expired Sunday with Netanyahu urging Abbas to stick with the talks. On Monday in Paris, Abbas promised to avoid "any quick reactions" and said he would wait at least a week before deciding whether to pull out.

That gives U.S. mediators time to broker a compromise, in contacts that are continuing in secret.

Last week it seemed Israel might agree to maintain the slowdown in some places — its deputy premier was urging the Palestinians to accept such a "compromise" and it was looking like they might. But Netanyahu now seems uninterested in this. Gaining currency is the notion of an undeclared slowdown in which settlement expansion is theoretically possible, but practically impeded by administrative machinations. Netanyahu already has said that he will keep settlement activity far below maximum levels.

Largely symbolic
Part of the equation is that the slowdown is mostly symbolic, and the Palestinians know it.

Construction predating November 2009 was allowed to proceed, hundreds of units were approved through an "exceptions" procedure, and the result was that months into the "freeze," the number of settler homes being built — by the government's own figures — had fallen by a mere 10 percent.

Speaking Monday with The Associated Press, senior Cabinet minister Silvan Shalom noted that in past peace talks — including those conducted by Abbas himself — Israel continued to build settlements. "Even his predecessor (Yasser) Arafat negotiated with all the Israeli prime ministers and never asked them to freeze settlement," Shalom said.

Others note that Israel can dismantle settlements if there is an agreement, as it did in the Sinai desert after reaching peace with Egypt, or more recently in the Gaza Strip while unilaterally pulling out.

Israelis hope that given the relative insignificance of the moratorium on the ground, the Palestinians will bitterly complain but ultimately accept the new-old reality — keeping their eye on the far bigger prize of independent statehood that might await them down the road.

Obama has set an ambitious goal of a one-year timetable to reach a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It is a goal that has eluded a succession of Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders in two decades of fitful peace efforts, requiring the sides to solve a series of puzzles that to date have frustrated the finest diplomatic minds:

  • The Palestinians insist on east Jerusalem as their capital, including the Old City with its holy sites. Yet the city is a kaleidoscope of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods that defies clean partition, and it is hard to find many Israelis who can envision Palestinian — or even international — border guards atop the Old City walls, literally a stone's throw from their own capital's main shopping street, bar districts and city hall.
  • Israelis hope the Palestinians will abandon their demand that refugees from the 1948 war that established the Jewish state — along with millions of descendants — resettle in their old homes and communities. After all, preserving the Jewish majority — more than the quest for peace — is for many the reason they're willing to cede the West Bank. But the "Right of Return" is a key part of the Palestinian narrative, and it may prove resilient.
  • There are 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank — a tripling in 20 years — and Palestinians want them gone. Israelis are hoping for flexibility and may get it. There are signs the Palestinians will agree to land swaps enabling communities very close to the Israel-West Bank border to become part of the Jewish state. But even the most creative redrawing of the border will leave Israel needing to move 100,000 settlers.

On top of this, Abbas stayed in office past his term, without elections, and does not control the Gaza Strip, which has a substantial chunk of the Palestinian population not in exile — meaning Israelis will be asked to make significant sacrifices for a deal with a leader whose legitimacy is under a cloud.

Interestingly, the idea of a Palestinian state is no longer controversial. In the 1990s, even a relative moderate like Yitzhak Rabin — lionized as a founding father of peace — could hardly bring himself to utter the words. Now even Netanyahu has accepted the notion, albeit under bruising pressure from Obama.

Perhaps Netanyahu calculates nothing will come of the effort. After all, twice before the Palestinians have rejected what most Israelis considered truly far-reaching statehood offers — from Ehud Barak in 2001 and from Ehud Olmert in 2008. In his appeal to Abbas, Netanyahu — perhaps the unlikeliest peacemaker of the bunch — maintained he is committed to trying again.

"Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year," he said.

Dan Perry is chief of bureau for Israel and the Palestinian territories, and a special international editor of The Associated Press.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: A history of talks

Explainer: Quest for Mideast peace: An overview

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a bid to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a threatened U.S. veto. U.S. President Barack Obama says the path to peace in the Middle East is through resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The last round of such talks broke down in 2010 with the two sides far apart on key issues. Click on the links on the left to find out more.

    Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, PBS, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations

  • Jerusalem

    Image: Jerusalem's Old City
    AP file

    Israel claims the entire city as its own undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, but says Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.

  • West Bank

    Image: Israeli soldiers patrol the old city in the West Bank city of Hebron
    Abed Al Hashlamoun  /  EPA

    One of the disputed Israeli-occupied territories with areas of limited Palestinian self-government. The scores of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank have long been a sore point in Mideast peacemaking. Israel began settling the territory soon after capturing it along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

    The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to roughly 500,000 Israelis interspersed among 2.6 million Palestinians, are gobbling up land they claim for a future state. The international community considers them illegal, and President Barack Obama has been an outspoken critic.

    The West Bank encompasses important cities such as East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It would make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Expansion of Jewish housing makes those borders ever more complicated.

    A 10-month slowdown in West Bank housing construction by Israel expired in late September, and the Israeli government did not extend it despite international pleas to do so. That contributed to a breakdown in the last round of peace talks between the two sides.

  • Gaza Strip

    Image: Gaza Strip
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    This 25-mile-long by 7-mile-wide strip of land lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is home to about 1.6 million Palestinians and is under firm control by the militant Hamas movement. Hamas is opposed not only to the peace talks but also to Israel's very existence.

    Gaza, which is also supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state, has been the staging point for rocket attacks on Israel, which has responded with a economically crippling naval blockade of the territory.

    Most of Gaza's residents are from refugee families that fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. Of these, most live in impoverished refugee camps to which the United Nations delivers basic services such as health and education.

    Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas seized control of Gaza the following year, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

    Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers say they will never give Israel what it most wants from a Middle East deal, which is recognition of the Jewish state and a legitimate place in the region. They see their Fatah rivals in the West Bank, who have been open to negotiating with Israel, as appeasers and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

  • Golan Heights

    A fortified and strategically important hilly area on the border of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until 1967, when they were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

    Syria has said it wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. A deal with Syria would also involve the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territory.

  • Egypt

    Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel. Despite Arab world pressure, Cairo has adhered at least to the formal requirements of its peace treaty.

    Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had played the role of mediator at several very critical junctures in the peace process with the Palestinians and was a key U.S. ally in the tumultuous region. The U.S. underwrites much of Egypt's foreign aid.

    But more recently, Israel's relations with Egypt have deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and forced Israeli diplomats to be evacuated.

  • Syria

    Damascus is one of Israel's harshest opponents, and supports a number of armed groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Israel has condemned Syria for its support for the Hamas Islamic government in Gaza.

    Tensions between Syria and Israel rose in 2010 after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a foreign terrorist organization. Israel has warned that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself.

    Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups based in Syria have rejected any move by the Palestinian Authority to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

    Syria has accused Israel of posing a threat to the world with its "huge military nuclear arsenal."

    Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has found itself under international pressure recently, condemned by leaders around the world for a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that began in mid-March 2011.

  • Jordan

    Jordan is considered a very important country in resolving the Mideast conflict due to its proximity to Israel and the occupied territories and its large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Jordan, along with Egypt, are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan is also a strategic ally to the United States in the Middle East.

    Amman has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians.

    Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted as saying in September 2011 that Jordan and the Palestinians were now in a stronger position than Israel, telling a group of academics that the Arab uprisings had weakened Israel's position.

  • Lebanon

    Lebanon, a small Middle East sovereign state, has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.

    Dozens of private armies grew out of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still flourish 20 years later.

    A period of relative stability was shattered in 2006 when an all-out 34-day war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and Israel caused significant civilian deaths and heavy damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure.

    Hezbollah is a central player in Lebanon. Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state.

    The power balance worries the U.S. and Israel, Hezbollah's sworn enemy.

    U.N. peacekeepers have been charged with monitoring Lebanon's southern border with Israel since 1978. The force was boosted to almost 12,000 troops after Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought in 2006.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments