Thursday, November 29, 2007

Peace talks to begin Dec 12

We start this blog with some heavy subject matter. Surprising progress was made at yesterday's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, where Israeli Prime minister Ehud Olmert (pictured, at right, with US President George W. Bush) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (pictured, at left) agreed to begin formal talks next month and pledged to "make every effort" to reach a deal by the end of 2008.

The two leaders indicated in a joint statement that continuous peace talks would begin on December 12, and that they would meet every fortnight until a comprehensive deal had been reached. “We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples,” they said.

US President George W. Bush orchestrated the meeting in a bid to gain diplomatic credibility in the final months of his presidency. The White House has indicated that Mr Bush will continue to act as a "mediator," a new experience for him, while "leaving the workaday details of American diplomacy" to his secretary of state, Ms Condoleezza Rice. Who would have imagined that Mr Bush was a man of peace? What his administration now needs to do is keep him occupied while the real business of negotiation proceeds.

The major papers all devote space to the apparent political will for peace. The Australian notes the Arab world's cautious reaction to Israel's signal that bi-weekly peace talks with the Palestinians would centre on a core Arab demand of the return of territory captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 war. The Sydney Morning Herald leader reflects my thinking, saying that "after seven wasted years and a failed war in Iraq, the Bush Administration has decided to try its hand at Middle East peacemaking," and cautioning that:

with Hamas excluded from the process, it will take more than smiles and handshakes in Annapolis to bridge the divide. Even those taking part are at odds over issues such as whether East Jerusalem can become the capital of a future Palestinian state, and demands for the right of return for Palestinians evicted from the ancestral lands when Israel was created in 1948.
The London Times adds that the Israeli Prime Minister is deeply unpopular and has political enemies vested in his failure. Mr Abbas now rules only parts of the West Bank. The militant Islamic group, Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Mr Abbas this year, said that he was an “isolated traitor” for attending the conference.

The Los Angeles Times declares that the Israelis were the biggest winners of the meeting since they "came away with a greater share of what they were seeking." The New York Times notes that both sides agreed the success of this new peace process "will depend in part on how vigorously President Bush pushes Palestinians and Israelis."

Yet in Gaza, a Hamas official described the joint statement as a "waste of time." "What we saw is just a farewell party for George Bush and a hopeless attempt to portray him as a great leader who succeeded in doing what other American leaders failed to do," said Ahmed Youssef, a senior figure in the Islamist movement. Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza had earlier rallied against the US peace conference talks.

Lasting peace in the Middle East, if it is indeed possible, will require more than smiles and handshakes from George W. Bush, and will probably take a lot longer than 12 months to secure. It will require ongoing goodwill by regional leaders, a willingness to make political concessions and compromises, and the absence of further deterioration in the fragile situation that now exists in the West Bank and further afield.