This week's meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went better than expected, with both leaders saying all the right things and setting a timetable of regular fortnightly meetings for their peace negotiations.
The leaders had come to Washington amid pessimism and doubts from both sides. Many in Abbas's Fatah Party did not want him to agree to resume direct talks with Israel after a 20-month hiatus without winning an extension of a 10-month moratorium on building in Israeli settlements.
Netanyahu is under pressure from many in his own coalition to end the moratorium. Two Hamas attacks this week on Israeli civilians in the West Bank, in which four people were killed, two were injured and seven children were orphaned, inflamed settlers who redoubled their pressure to resume building, and sent a shiver of fear through the entire Israeli population which is still traumatized from years of suicide bombings and Iran-backed Hamas rocket attacks.
Yet the Washington meeting went smoothly and produced exactly the outcome President Obama and his team had planned. Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to meet again in Egypt on Sept 14 and 15 and at regular two-weekly intervals after that to pursue their peace talks.
Their public statements were conciliatory and each addressed some of the other's sensitive points.
In remarks at a White House dinner on Wednesday evening, Netanyahu said: "President Abbas, you are my partner in peace. It is up to us to overcome the agonizing conflict between our peoples and to forge a new beginning."
Netanyahu said he had been making the case for Israel his entire life. "But I did not come here to win an argument ... (or) play a blame game where even the winners lose. I came here to achieve a peace that will bring benefits to all."
Abbas addressed Israeli sensitivities in his opening remarks on Thursday: "We consider that security is of essence, is vital for both of us. And we cannot allow for anyone to do anything that would undermine your security and our security."
U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell said Netanyahu and Abbas had agreed to seek a "framework" accord as part of their peace talks. The accord would lay out the compromises needed to complete a comprehensive peace treaty within a year, which all parties have set as a target to complete a comprehensive and final peace agreement.
As everybody repeatedly stressed, there is a long way to go and many tough issues to resolve. The first test will come very quickly. Netanyahu is unlikely to extend the settlement moratorium and some limited construction in Jewish West Bank settlements will happen. At that point, the talks will face a test. Will Abbas walk, or will a form of face-saving formula enable him to stay at the table?
If the talks can clear that obstacle, there is some reason for hope. The West Bank economy is booming and the Palestinian Authority is finally establishing the rule of law. Ordinary Palestinians are beginning to taste some of the benefits that could accrue from peace. For the first time, they have something to lose -- and much to gain from a final agreement that will at long last grant them independence.
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