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SPIEGEL ONLINE

03/11/2010 01:37 PM

The World from Berlin

Middle East Peace Is 'a Story of Missed Opportunities'

US Vice President Joe Biden praised planned low-level peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians this week as "a moment of real opportunity" -- just as a member of the Israeli government seemed to ruin the party by announcing a new batch of settlements on Israeli-occupied land. German commentators express unanimous disappointment.

It was meant to be the start of "indirect talks," a small step to revive the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, which were stalled even before Israel's fierce incursion into Gaza near the end of 2008 and the start of 2009. "I think we are at a moment of real opportunity," said US Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday in Jerusalem, throwing official American goodwill on the latest approach to peace. "I think that the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people, if everybody stops and takes a deep breath, are actually more in line than they are opposites." He added, for good measure, that US government policy was firmly in line with Israel's need for self-defense.

But while this diplomatic theater played out before the news cameras, Israel's Interior Ministry, run by the ultra-orthodox party Shas, made an awkwardly timed announcement that a plan to build 1,600 new settlement homes in occupied East Jerusalem would go ahead. Palestinians have demanded a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the run-up to any peace talks.

Vice President Biden was reportedly so outraged that he kept Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting an hour and a half to start a formal dinner on Tuesday evening. He used strong language to "condemn" the move. But so far no one in Jerusalem has moved to reverse the building order, and Palestinian officials around President Mahmoud Abbas have said the indirect talks planned for next week will collapse if nothing changes.

"It is very difficult for us to engage in any negotiations, unless the order is revoked," the Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, told the BBC on Thursday morning. He called on the Americans to "help us revoke this order."

Israeli officials said the announcement's timing was an "unfortunate coincidence," but German commentators on Thursday see a deliberate attempt by elements of the Netanyahu government to scuttle any step toward peace.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It's easy to imagine how Joe Biden felt, since he had just declared that no daylight existed between the American and the Israeli positions on Israel's national defense. Biden -- and with him President Barack Obama -- must feel betrayed by such provocative behavior."

"The tragic history between Israel and the Palestinians is also a story of missed opportunities. First it's one side that misses a good chance for progress; then it's the other. The result since 1993 has been a peace process that follows successes with more violence and inertia. The Americans now want to revive efforts to reach a peace agreement with a two-state solution. The Palestinians, split into Hamas and Fatah, are truly not in good shape for negotiating, and President Abbas is in the twilight of his career. But in Israel a number of people must feel pretty strong if they believe they can hoodwink the second-highest official of their most important ally and friend."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Since Obama came to Washington and Prime Minister Netanyahu took power in Jerusalem, mistrust and disappointment have grown between Israel and the United States. Obama's recent spirited drive toward peace has been consistently boycotted by Netanyahu. Personal relations between the two men are reportedly shattered. The only surprise is the lack of consequences. Washington so far has tolerated Jerusalem's every escapade, has swallowed every frustration and answered provocations with guarantees of support. This can only be explained by the so-called 'special relationship' between the two countries."

"Obama's involvement in the peace process has not been interpreted as an opportunity, but as a threat, and Israel reacts defensively to threats -- sometimes by mounting attacks. There's no other way to understand the vehemence of Israel's snub … It is provocation, and it smacks of hubris -- the smaller government pushing around its larger ally. This should be Obama's chance to make it clear to Netanyahu that even their special friendship has limits."

The conservative (and normally pro-Israel) daily Die Welt writes:

"During Vice President Biden's visit -- of all moments -- the Israeli Interior Ministry stumbles on the idea of green-lighting 1,600 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem. The move doesn't, in fact, violate a recent Israeli moratorium on settlement building, because the moratorium never extended to Jerusalem; but it does call into question the professionalism of Israel's political class."

"As if Israel didn't have enough enemies, Jerusalem now seems to be working hard to drive away its friends. First its diplomats humble the Turkish ambassador -- and with him a country that traditionally acts cool toward Israel but nevertheless serves as a strategic partner. Now the Obama administration's highest-ranking guest has been embarrassed, after the US government managed, with much diplomatic effort, to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table."

"It's bad enough that Israel has become a pariah in many countries and a sort of 'punching ball' in international politics. In Jerusalem officials need to be a little more careful with their allies and friends."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung argues:

"A new idea has taken hold among Palestinians: Maybe it would be better, under the circumstances, to dispense with the goal of a Palestinian state. A united country called Israel-Palestine (or 'Isratine' for short), with Arabs and Jews living together under equal laws, might be a quicker road to peace. Polls have suggested that one in four Palestinians would support such a state. Their models are South Africa, which has overcome apartheid, and Northern Ireland, which has all but left its religious fighting behind."

"Even the Palestinian establishment has started to think seriously about 'Isratine.' Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, has said the current round of indirect talks would be the last attempt to arrive at a two-state solution. In December he started to talk about the idea of working toward a single mutual state with Israel."

"But perhaps voicing this idea is just Erekat's attempt to raise pressure on Israel. Because a mutual-state solution has long been a bugaboo for the Israelis. The Zionist dream was always a nation where Jews from around the world could find asylum; the purely Jewish state would no longer exist."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 1pm CET

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