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Mideast talks - all aboard the peace-process train

Posted: August 7, 2013 - 11:06pm

The crowds watching near the platform mostly think this train won’t get very far, but now that the passengers have climbed aboard the peace process train, there are strange noises of optimism heard at the station.

The new talks between Israeli and Palestinians were launched with modest fanfare in Washington, following relentless efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry. To most observers, including Israelis and Palestinians, the effort fell somewhere between endearing and pointless, not because they don’t want peace, but because the obstacles seem nearly insurmountable at this time in the region’s history.

And yet, Kerry and some of the main participants in this new push don’t just sound optimistic. They are also extraordinarily ambitious in their goals, and claim to be convinced those goals can be reached. The gap between expectations and goals has never been greater.

“When somebody tells you that Israelis and Palestinians cannot find common ground or address the issues that divide them, don’t believe them,” said Kerry, his arms around Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, in Washington for the start of talks. “While I understand the skepticism,” Kerry added, “I don’t share it and I don’t think we have time for it.” Kerry’s goal, the talks’ goal, is to reach a “final status agreement” by the end of April. No less than, “ending the conflict, ending the claims.”

Populations on both sides agree that such a deal, with that timetable, with these players, and in the current conditions is, at best, extremely unlikely. Israeli columnist Ari Shavit, who like most Israelis supports a two-state solution, was dripping with sarcasm in a conversation quoted by the writer Jeffrey Goldberg, joking about putting champagne in the fridge to celebrate the impending peace.

Goldberg, who has written authoritatively about Israel for many years, has produced a series of columns, one more pessimistic than the other, with headlines like John Kerry’s bid for Mideast peace is doomed, and Seven reasons Kerry’s Mideast talks are delusional.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to believe that by this spring Israelis would agree to give up sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, or that Palestinians would relinquish their demands that descendants of refugees be allowed to move to Israel, to name just a couple of the tough issues under discussion.

And yet, it’s not just Kerry who sounds optimistic about the talks.

His newly appointed representative to the negotiations, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, didn’t exactly sound like a man sent on a suicide mission when he thanked his bosses, President Obama and Kerry, for the assignment, declaring himself, “optimistic that comprehensive peace in the Middle East is now possible.”

That was the same Indyk, as many rushed to note, who just last year told Israeli Army Radio that he was not optimistic because “the maximum concessions” the Israeli government could offer “fall far short of the minimum requirements” that Palestinians would demand.

Indyk’s sunny disposition is shared by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, a brilliant historian who understands the forces at play.

He repeatedly told a skeptical Wolf Blitzer on CNN that, “Yes, within nine months we can work out all the core issues, territory, security, even Jerusalem. We can work it out,” as long as the Palestinians stay at the table. “That,” he said, “is the crucial condition.”

That sudden upsurge of positive thinking, or at least positive talking, among key American and Israeli players was not so easy to find on the Palestinian side.

As the meetings started in Washington — and it’s worth noting neither Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the events — Abbas was visiting Cairo.

There he gave Egyptian journalists some details of his vision for a Palestinian state, as one where “we would not see the presence of a single Israeli.”

In Israel, where 20 percent of the population is Arab, Abbas’ grim, ill-timed words, did not go over very well, preventing any of the sunniness in Washington from reaching Israeli shores.

If there was one arguably positive comment from the Palestinian side it was from Erakat in Washington, who said, “No one benefits more from the success of this endeavor than Palestinians.”

But if there was one statement that managed to acknowledge the difficulties along with the reason for pushing forward, it came from Livni, who said, “History is not made by cynics.

“It is made by realists who are not afraid.” And so this train leaves the station, with some foreseeing derailment, others expecting a mid-point destination, and a few dreamers insisting it will make it all the way.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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