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Expectations low for Mideast peace breakthrough

As their leaders prepare to return to the negotiating table for the first time in 20 months, many Israelis and Palestinians already agree on one point: Chances for success are slim.

U.S. officials, in announcing Friday that the two sides were invited to meet in Washington in early September, said they hoped President Obama’s planned peace summit would be a turning point in the decades-old Mideast conflict.

“I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward through difficult times and to continue to work to achieve a just and lasting peace,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at the State Department.

In the Mideast, however, people on both sides say bringing Israeli and Palestinian Authority negotiators face to face again is not a real breakthrough , but that closing the longstanding gaps in their positions and rebuilding shattered trust would be.

Moreover, Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip and refuses to recognize Israel, immediately rejected the peace talks. Some worry that the Islamist group might boost its campaign of violent resistance to sabotage the process.

“So they’re in talks? What’s the big achievement?” said Israeli opposition lawmaker Meir Sheetrit. “It’s just a ritual. I’m skeptical that they will arrive at any agreement. Chances are very poor.”

Though his Kadima party is a staunch advocate of the peace process, Sheetrit doubted that conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to make the concessions, such as dismantling West Bank settlements, that leaders of the Palestinians’ Fatah faction, dominant in the West Bank, say are necessary for them to consider making a deal.

“The price of peace is well known by everyone,” Sheetrit said. “We’ve been talking about this for 15 years. We don’t need to waste any more time. But Netanyahu and his coalition are not ready to pay the price.”

Right-wing supporters of Netanyahu agree that the peace talks are doomed, but for different reasons.

“President Obama is going to be the eighth consecutive American president who failed to improve the situation in the Middle East because he’s exploring the same path of establishing a Palestinian state,” said Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, which represents many of the 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. “It’s a futile path. It will not happen.”

Dayan’s group and others have launched a lobbying and advertising campaign to pressure the prime minister not to reduce settlement construction. Some have threatened to try to bring down his government coalition over the issue.

“We don’t deal with toppling or king-making, but we have quite strong leverage on the political system,” Dayan said.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are also struggling with political divisions between Fatah, which has been invited to the new talks, and Hamas, which has authority over the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Friday condemned direct peace talks as a “deception” designed to placate Palestinians. His group, which has long refused to disavow the use of violence, says it will not abide by any peace deal reached in Washington.

For Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, another round of failed peace talks could spell political disaster. Abbas has bet his career on renouncing violence and pursuing peace talks with Israel. But after nearly two decades of negotiations, Palestinians still have no state and frustration on the street is high.

Dayan warned that failed peace talks could trigger renewed violence.

“They raise expectations, and when it’s impossible to fulfill those expectations, there is frustration,” he said. “In the Middle East, frustration usually leads to a new wave of violence.”

The collapse of peace talks during the Clinton administration in 2000 helped trigger the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Questions remain about whether Israelis and Palestinians are ready and able to deliver a peace agreement, experts say.

During the last year, Netanyahu has sent mixed signals. Bowing to U.S. pressure, he publicly endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state for the first time and imposed a 10-month moratorium on most new housing construction in the West Bank. But housing projects in disputed parts of Jerusalem have increased during his tenure. His foreign minister declared that he didn’t foresee the creation of a Palestinian state within the next decade.

As for Fatah and Abbas, some experts say they only have one more chance to prove themselves before Palestinians turn to new leadership or resume violent resistance.

“I would view this as a last shot,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Friday on CNN.

A one-year time limit on peace talks is crucial to bringing Abbas to the table, analysts say. If talks fail to produce results, Palestinians have strongly hinted that they plan to unilaterally declare statehood and seek recognition from the U.S. and other nations.

“Agreeing to these talks shows the U.S. that Palestinians are ready to go all the way, and if nothing happens, it gives them an excuse to declare a state,” said former Israeli peace negotiator Moshe Amirav, now a Hebrew University political science professor.

In a rare expression of optimism, Amirav predicted Friday that Netanyahu and Abbas would defy the naysayers because both men have an eye on their legacies.

At 75, Abbas is looking to retire, and delivering statehood to Palestinians would be his crowning achievement.

The 60-year-old Netanyahu is likewise “looking for something to put his mark on history,” Amirav said. “I believe he is ready to make the big jump into an agreement with Palestinians.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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