Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tried to put the best spin this week on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but observers expect little if anything will be accomplished by the end of the year.
“God willing and with the goodwill of the parties and the tireless work of the parties, we have a good chance to succeed,” Rice said at a press conference with Abbas in Ramallah during her seventh visit to the region in the past 10 months. “If this had been easy, somebody would have solved it a long time ago.”
Added Abbas: “Just because we have not yet succeeded does not mean we have failed. … These efforts haven’t been for nothing. We would have stopped it if it was pointless. There are benefits that I hope will show in the future.”
Some Mideast observers see the talks as useless, with both parties failing to make good on pledges. But Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, said the talks must continue or Hamas could claim a moral victory over Fatah in the struggle for control of Palestinian politics.
“We need it at least to make it look like something is going on,” he said. “It’s artificial respiration. But sometimes, if it succeeds, the patient can recover. You do this until the new doctor comes in and offers something else.”
He was referring to the expected new leaders in Israel and the U.S. in the coming months.
“The alternative — admitting that it has failed — would give satisfaction to Hamas, and nobody wants this,” he added. “There is a zero-sum game between Fatah and Hamas, and there is no zero-sum game between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Rice in the past had said she would like to see both sides publish a document detailing the partial agreements they have reached. But Israel objected, believing it would only serve as the starting point for future talks. By the time she left the region, there was little talk of it, and Haaretz quoted a source close to the talks as saying, “Rice understands that now is not a good time for this or that document to emerge.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had favored publication of a so-called “shelf agreement” — a deal whose implementation would be delayed until Abbas and his Fatah Party regained control of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and had full control of security in the West Bank. But the Palestinians oppose that because it would leave out the future status of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital. Additionally, Olmert, beset by scandals, has said he will resign after the winner of the Kadima Party primary Sept. 17 forms a new government.
Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Rice’s efforts at cajoling both sides to make concessions in the pursuit of peace demonstrated America’s commitment. But the roadblocks she faced “shows her power is limited.”
“The two sides have a long way to go, and their leaders are not ready nor capable of delivering what is required of a long-lasting peace,” he said.
Abbas said this week there would be no peace until all 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails were released. Israel released 198 of them on Monday, one day before Rice arrived, in what was described as a “good will gesture” towards Abbas.
Several of those released had been involved in the murder of Israelis. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published a report quoting “Israeli security bodies” as saying that about half of all terrorists freed over the years by Israel had “returned to the path of terror, either as perpetrator, planner or accomplice,” resulting in the murder of hundreds of Israelis and the wounding of thousands of others. It quoted one study that found that at least 30 terrorist attacks since 2000 had been committed by freed terrorists, resulting in the deaths of 177 persons.
At a press conference Rice again said that Israeli expansion of settlements was “not helpful.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told her that settlement work was limited to “small activities” that would have no bearing on the peace talks or the borders of a future Palestinian state.
The talks coincided with the release of a report by Peace Now claiming that settlement construction in the West Bank had nearly doubled in the first half of this year, compared with the same period a year ago.
The cabinet this week approved a draft of the state budget for 2009 despite expectations that bickering over the spending program would force a premature split of Olmert’s caretaker government. The bill now heads to the Knesset for the next test of whether the parliamentary coalition can function at a time of political stagnation.
“It’s business as usual, the government does function, and Olmert does function,” Diskin said.
Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst and director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, said a key indicator about who will win the Kadima race next month will be when Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, himself a long shot candidate, decides whom to endorse. The top contenders are Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Dichter’s support for Livni would be akin to Barack Obama’s decision to bolster his security credentials by picking Joe Biden, Javedanfar said.
Meanwhile with the country in political limbo, Israelis have become obsessed with the police investigation into the alleged murder and neglect of four-year-old Rose Pizem by her paternal grandfather, Netanya resident Ronny Ron.
After a court-mandated gag order was lifted Tuesday, Israel’s two leading tabloids devoted their entire front pages to the grandfather’s chilling admission that he killed his granddaughter, deposited the body in a suitcase, and then disposed of it in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River.
The fact that the girl’s disappearance in May was only reported to police a few weeks ago is only a part of the disturbing fate of Rose. The sordid story of a mother who takes her father-in-law as a lover, and the neglect of a troubled child has profoundly disturbed Israelis.
“Of course there are people among us who are depraved as much as anywhere else, but this is one more Israeli conceit that has been taken away from us,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
“On the one hand, the fact that we’ve produced an Israeli family that has managed to violate every one of the Ten Commandments would seem to prove that we’re not different from other nations. On the other hand, the shocked reaction that we have such people among us, means that we still have some expectation of ourselves as being different.”
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.