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Peace in sight? - Little cause for optimism in the Middle East

After the start of the first peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in 20 months, Rainer Sollich of DW's Arab Service views the prospects for a historical agreement rather pessimistically.

Opinion. Pen and paper.

The first round of the new Mideast peace talks in Washington have ended. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to meet every two weeks in order to reach a peace settlement within a year. But the prospects for a historical agreement are rather slim according to Rainer Sollich.

What is noteworthy is that the two leaders who had to be pushed to direct talks and small compromises for peace appear to have had a character change in Washington, evoking the common Abrahamic heritage of Israelis and Palestinians.

Only together can the two peoples move into a "historical future," affirmed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas almost on command said that they finally want to embark on a new era together. In one year they want to accomplish something that has failed for the past 60 years: A compromise between the two sides.

Do they really want that? And do the two men have the necessary power and determination for it? Unfortunately, skepticism is appropriate. Netanyahu tritely declared that both sides naturally have to make painful concessions. He himself, however, has not shown the readiness to extend the partial stop of settlement construction projects - which expires on September 26th - in the Palestinian regions. He knows full well that in his current governing coalition such a step is hardly feasible.

Mahmoud Abbas has even more problems. While Netanyahu could conceivably restructure his government in order to secure his place in the history books, the Palestinian president is confronted by the question of democratic legitimacy. His mandate expired one-and-a-half years ago and since the coup by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas in the summer of 2007 he has virtually no control over the Gaza Strip.

Abbas' ability to compromise also has to be questioned. One can hardly find another leading Palestinian politician who is willing to accomodate American demands to the extent that Abbas would. He is therefore the weakest Palestinian leader for some time. So weak, that one can hardly imagine how he could get his own people to accept a painful compromise.

The opponents of peace in the Middle East know how to manipulate such weaknesses and are already mobilizing themselves on both sides: Jewish settlers have announced the construction of further illegal housing in the occupied regions; Hamas has threatened deadly attacks on Israelis. Despite the sharp ideological extremes and reciprocal hate, the two sides have essentially joined in a dangerous alliance, and a single targeted attack could cause the peace talks to fail.

Unfortunately, there are only a few reasons to be optimistic. Plans for a historical compromise have sat finished in a drawer for years; the fact that Arabs and Israelis would like to push back Iranian influence in the region is also a common aim. And there is also the theory that in light of the very different rates of population growth, only the foundation of a Palestinian state can prevent Jews from becoming a minority in the region.

This all seems logical. But logical insights have seldom played a role in this conflict.

Author: Rainer Sollich (sk)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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