The World from Berlin 'Obama Takes a Big, Necessary Risk' on Middle East

As the first direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in two years get underway in Washington, President Barack Obama says he is "cautiously hopeful" about finding a solution for the Middle East. German editorialists on Thursday, however, are more circumspect about his chances.

US President Barack Obama is "cautiously hopeful" on Middle East deal.
REUTERS

US President Barack Obama is "cautiously hopeful" on Middle East deal.


The scene is familiar. Amid a flurry of photo opportunities and hand shakes, the latest round of US-mediated Middle East talks get underway.

Following the failed negotiations brokered by his predecessors, President Barack Obama urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seize this chance to secure peace in the violence-torn region. "This moment of opportunity may not soon come again," Obama said at the White House on Wednesday night ahead of the start of the talks. "Too much blood" has been spilled in the Middle East, he added.

"Do we have the wisdom and the courage to walk the path of peace?" Obama asked, challenging the participants.

Both Mideast leaders outlined their hopes for a breakthrough within the one-year timeframe envisioned by Obama.

Fuelling confidence in the chances of progress in the Middle East, Netanyahu referred to his Palestinian counterpart Abbas as his "partner for peace." Addressing the Palestinian leader, Netanyahu said: "It is up to us to overcome the agonizing conflict between our peoples and to forge a new beginning."

But he also warned: "We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, and we got terror once again. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel."

Abbas underlined his hopes for a peaceful solution. "We don't want blood to be shed -- neither that of Palestinians nor of Israelis. We want peace, we want normal life. We want to live as partners and neighbors."

Freeze Threatens Talks

But everyone at the table is well aware of a raft of potential obstacles. Casting a long shadow over this attempt at peace is Israel's pending decision on whether to extend a ban on building new settlements. Should Netanyahu refuse to extend the freeze, Abbas has warned that he will exit negotiations.

Another obstacle comes in the form of the violence which has flared in the region this week. Hamas wants to do all it can to sabotage the negotiations, as it demonstrated on Tuesday with the murder of four Jewish settlers in Hebron. The attack appeared to be orchestrated to coincide with the trips made by Abbas and Netanyahu to Washington. It is feared they may launch more attacks aimed at derailing the negotiations.

In light of the risks, Obama stressed that he had "no illusions" about the scope of the challenge facing him. "Passions run deep. Each side has legitimate and enduring interests. Years of mistrust will not disappear overnight," he warned ahead of the talks. German commentators also stressed the potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks, although most agreed that the United States is right to try, yet again, to find a solution.

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Will we be in line for a surprise after all when peace talks start on Thursday? At first it appeared that the same old procedure was being repeated yet again. ... But some things are looking different this time round."

"Back in the 1990s, under Arafat, the Palestinian Authority had to be pressured before they half-heartedly chased terrorists (Arafat later unleashed his own murderers on the Israelis). This time, however, the Palestinian Authority has reacted with bravery and has arrested many Hamas extremists. From the Israeli side, meanwhile, we are hearing things which have never been openly said by government officials: Defense Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians part of Jerusalem. This is an amazing breakthrough, even though it was rapidly denied by people from Netanyahu's camp, probably to prevent internal political turmoil."

"Of course, everyone knows that there will be no peace without dividing the Holy City. But it makes a difference whether such offers are the subject of secret negotiations, or whether they are made publicly. ... Barak's advance fuels hopes that these Middle East talks may go further than previous attempts."

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Whoever forces the conflicting sides to the negotiating table under current conditions, is acting irresponsibly and egotistically. But the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States) is expecting a solution within a number years. The US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell has said he expects peace to be sealed by the end of 2010. One wonders about the source of such optimism in a mediator who has failed to encourage the two sides to take even a small step forward during his long weeks of shuttle diplomacy. Whoever whips up expectations of hope faces likely disappointment. It is 10 years ago that Camp David talks failed, dashing hopes of peace which seemed nearer than ever. That collapse was followed by appalling terror and military violence."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Many US presidents managed to sit Israelis and Palestinians side by side at a table. But none have managed to hammer out an agreement for peace. This fate now looms large over President Barack Obama. He has given the parties a time frame of one year -- an ambitious schedule given the decade of fruitless attempts to secure a deal for the Middle East. It is particularly ambitious in light of what it means for the US: In recent years, Washington has already used up lots of its cards. Obama is pulling soldiers out of Iraq but remains far from his goal of installing freedom and democracy in the divided region."

"As long as Israelis and Palestinians have to be forced to the negotiating table by third parties, there is little scope for success. The fact that Abbas and Netanyahu are meeting again represents a small step forward but neither side is making concessions on their own free will. Obama, meanwhile, has long exhausted the cards in his hand. By moderating these talks, the Nobel laureate is taking a big, albeit necessary, risk."

Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It is high time that Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other again. It is therefore right to put a stop to indirect talks. There is no guarantee that the direct negotiations, starting now in Washington, will be crowned with success. For 17 years the conflicting parties have tried and failed to forge peace, and President Obama now aims for a resolution within the year. Few in the Middle East share his optimism."

"These talks are also at risk of failure before they really get going. The Palestinians say they will leave the negotiation table if Israel's freeze on new construction in the settlements is not extended beyond its expiration date of Sept. 26. Netanyahu needs to show that he is serious. He needs to turn his words into action."

Jess Smee

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