Here come direct talks

Months of hectic diplomacy by the United States seems to have paid off, at least in pushing matters ahead in the Middle East.

There is to be a resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Moreover, the latest round of talks having a one-year time frame is expected to be launched by US President Barack Obama.

While the contentious issues dominating the agenda have become increasingly complex, the time limit is a good idea. It does not leave the new negotiation initiative open-ended. In fact, it can help streamline the discussions and sharpen the focus on the sticking points. The framework for the talks remains the same; Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories to the pre-1967 borders. But it is not merely a release of occupied territories.

The issue of Israeli settlements on occupied territories poses a major impediment in the future as well. Tel Aviv has not as yet given any indication that it might extend the moratorium—on a partial halt of settlement construction—that expires end September. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a strong stand on the issue of cessation of settlements despite US pressure.

It is an issue that is likely to figure prominently during the talks. The Palestinians agreeing to the talks despite not having obtained a guarantee from Israel on settlements is obviously under US coercion. This may have won Israel round one even before the talks, but coercion is not going to work when it comes to battling it out during negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for one, will not be in a position to concede further ground. Already the sentiments on the Palestinian street are running high on what is being perceived as a reneging on the stand of settlements. It is likely to be further fanned by Fatah’s rival group Hamas.

Besides, other key issues in the talks will include the fate of Jerusalem’s political status, the return of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a new Palestinian state. A two-state solution while accepted internationally as the only viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains shackled by these very issues.

Despite the difficulties looming large, holding of talks, especially those bound in a time frame, is a positive development. The Obama administration can at least for the time being heave a sigh of relief for having managed to get the two sides to resume talks. The rest of the challenge remains to be seen.

It is hoped that the US plays a positive and fair role during negotiations. It must bear on Israel to relinquish its obdurate stand, not commit further violations of international law and end the pursuit of policies that has left it in a reviled and isolationist position in the region.

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