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Hopes for progress as new round of Mideast peace talks gets underway

Two weeks after the Middle East diplomatic quartet said peace talks in the region could be wrapped up within a year, parties in the conflict are in Washington for a new round of negotiations.

The Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem: at the heart of the Middle East conflict

A day after US President Barack Obama made a personal appeal for peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton relaunched the first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 20 months, acknowledging the difficult circumstances for the two leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmud Abbas. In an opening statement, Netanyahu said that a lasting peace would only be achieved with "mutual and painful concessions from both sides," while Abbas stressed that security was a fundamental and sensitive issue for Israelis and Palestinians.

Earlier international leaders said those involved had an historic opportunity to reach a deal. "We appeal to all parties involved to create circumstances that would allow the success of these peace talks," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in London after talks with his British counterpart William Hague.

The Mideast leaders are there on the invitation of Clinton who, in agreement with the quartet - the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN - recently said one year would be enough to secure peace.

The task is a tough one, at which many have failed. As the last round of talks got underway in 2007, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they would be "bilateral and direct" and that they would be wrapped up by the end of 2008.

But that was not the way things panned out. Far from peace descending over the region, December 2008 saw Israel launch a controversial military offensive and the Gaza Strip become the setting for three weeks of bloody war.

Almost one year later the newly elected US President Obama invited the two sides to New York to discuss a resumption of talks. By then, however, Olmert had resigned amidst corruption charges and was succeeded by the current head of the Israeli government, Netanyahu.

Although the 2009 meeting between Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Obama proved inconclusive, it prompted the head of the then-fledgling US administration to make his position clear.

"The time has come to relaunch negotiations - without preconditions - that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees and Jerusalem," Obama said.

Wounds old and new

A man walks down a street in East Jerusalem

A street in East Jerusalem

Whatever form they take, the negotiations have a lot of issues to resolve. One bone of contention is the eastern part of the city of Jerusalem, seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, and wanted by the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz that his country was willing to cede parts of the holy city.

"West Jerusalem and 12 Jewish neighborhoods that are home to 200,000 [Israeli] residents will be ours," he said, adding that the Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinians live would be theirs.

He also stressed that any deal agreed upon would have to ensure Israeli security.

That security was threatened on Tuesday night after four Jewish settlers were shot dead in the West Bank by the Islamist movement Hamas, known to oppose the peace talks. Such acts of violence at this critical time underscore the internal Palestinian split, and as Middle East expert Sylke Tempel told Deutsche Welle, consequently cast doubt over Abbas' ability to deliver on promises he makes.

"Hamas is active in the West Bank. Hamas is willing to show that they are not willing to go along with negotiations and that makes things very difficult for Abbas," she said.

An armed Hamas miltant in Gaza City

A Hamas miltant in Gaza City

Domestic divisions

Jochen Hippler, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg, agrees that Abbas is in a weak position but said the international community is at least partially to blame for the situation and should therefore do what it can to help turn the situation around.

"If we demand Palestinian elections but are not able to respect the party that wins, we should not demand them in the first place," Hippler told Deutsche Welle. "The healing process has to come from outside and Hamas has to be treated in a different way."

Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev stressed that the attack in the West Bank would not prevent Israel from taking part in the negotiations.

"We are committed to moving forward and committed to a historic peace arrangement with the Palestinians," he said.

The settlement issue

In order to achieve that, however, there are other hurdles to be cleared. The main ones are the right of Palestinian refugees chased out in 1948 to return, and the highly controversial issue of the construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.

Some 300,000 Israelis have settled there since 1967, but a moratorium imposed last December halted any further building work for 10 months.

Settlement construction

A point of major contention: settlement construction

The Palestinians have already stressed they are not willing to sit down with Israel unless they extend the moratorium, but whether that will happen or not remains very much to be seen. Speaking before the talks, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said it was up to Israel to do the right thing.

"Now we hope that Mr. Netanyahu, if he's given the choice between settlements and peace, would choose peace. If he's given the choice between reconciliation and an historical agreement and the confrontation or continuation of the occupation, he would choose the reconciliation," he said.

But Jochen Hippler is not convinced that the current Israeli administration is ready to take such a big step towards peace.

"My impression is that this government is interested in avoiding the cost of conflict, but that it is also interested in keeping what it has," Hippler said. "The interest in having two states is limited; the ideological interest in keeping settlements is bigger."

He believes the success of the talks depends upon a US willingness to apply the right amount of pressure to both parties, and although that promises to be a difficult job, he is optimistic that Obama knows what he's getting himself into.

"If the US has declared that the whole process will only take one year, that hopefully means they understand the importance of the role they have to play."

Author: Tamsin Walker, rm
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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