Analysis: How Are These Mideast Talks Different?

AP
Pessimists will say "here we go again."

Optimists will point to the goal of a peace agreement within one year and say "this time things will be different."

Journalists will have to restrain themselves from ending stories with "only time will tell."

The Obama administration has been working toward this announcement for twenty months, literally since their first days in office. Former Senator George Mitchell was named special envoy in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first week on the job.

Mitchell started meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and today's news is that the two leaders finally have been persuaded to sit down face-to-face and talk about the future status of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees -- the so-called final status issues which, it is hoped, will lead to a state called Palestine and an Israel which can be assured of living within safe and secure borders.

Acutely aware of the pitfalls of past efforts Secretary Clinton acknowledged "the enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region."

From the political point of view, announcing direct talks is an "important step," says Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), but he hastens to add "failure to get to this point would have been extremely harmful." Before going to the CFR, Danin watched the diplomatic ups and downs from posts in the State Department and, more recently, as a senior aide to Tony Blair, the special representative of the Quartet (U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia ).

President Obama will put himself at the forefront of this effort when Netanyahu and Abbas come to White House on September 1st to formally begin these negotiations. Of course there's a lot riding on the outcome for Mr. Obama, but he can quickly be expected to return to the domestic problems which will have more of an impact for his administration as midterm elections approach this fall. There will be plenty of time later to re-engage if and when his help is needed.

One element which makes this attempt at Middle East peacemaking different is the high profile inclusion of several Arab leaders from the outset. Among the invited guests at the White House in September will be Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah. Their presence sends an important signal of support to Abbas from the beginning of negotiations, a new wrinkle in American peace making efforts.

Still, there are many pivotal questions which have not been answered, at least publicly. One of the biggest is whether Israel will renew its self-imposed settlement construction freeze which is due to expire by the end of September. Netanyahu, who heads a shaky, right wing coalition, will be under considerable pressure to resume construction. If he does that the Palestinian negotiators will come under pressure to pull out of the talks.

And that's just one of the problems which lie ahead. In that respect, the CFR's Dinan says "challenges outside the negotiating room may be bigger than inside the room."

at left, CBS News' Mark Knoller, Juan Zarate and Bob Orr discuss the peace talks on "Washington Unplugged."

To the many doubters, Mitchell recalled his days negotiating another peace agreement.

"If the objective is to achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so. In a sense, in Northern Ireland we had 700 days of failure and one day of success," he said.

Mitchell, also a former judge, has heard the naysayers before. "We do not take the position that if you don't get everything you want the first time you ask for it, you pack your bags and go home....It takes patience, persistence, a willingness to go back again and again, to not take the first no as a final no, to not take the 50th no as the final no or the 100th no. We are patient, we are persevering, and we are determined, and we believe there is a basis for concluding a peace agreement in the region, and that's what we're going to pursue."

If there is otherwise very little reason to be optimistic, consider those words and perhaps, just maybe, there will be one more "day of success" in George Mitchell's career as peacemaker.


Charles Wolfson is CBS News' State Department Reporter.

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