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Pessimism Permeates Mideast Media on Talks
ETHAN BRONNER--September 3, 2010--

JERUSALEM — Palestinian and Israeli commentators were mostly pessimistic on
Friday in assessing this week’s meeting of their leaders in Washington. Many described it as political theater — dark suits, cordial handshakes and lofty speeches — offering little chance to end the conflict.

Some Israelis focused on the increase in shootings of Jewish settlers by Hamas and the political weakness of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinians worried that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had little intention of granting them what they consider their due — all of the occupied lands in a truly sovereign state.

“The heart yearns for the success of this latest attempt at peacemaking,” wrote David Horovitz, editor of The Jerusalem Post. But the head “fears that this week’s return to terror attacks was only the first murderous consequence.”

Sam Bahour, a businessman in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, said in a telephone interview that the Palestinian business community was mostly divided between those predicting failed talks and those expecting an agreement so lopsided in Israel’s favor as to make a sham of peace.

“We are in for a long, long crisis,” he said.

There were commentaries that were not so alarmed, but few optimistic ones, a reflection of the numerous failures of direct peace talks over the past 17 years and the sense that, so far, the new process looks little different from those earlier ones.

Adnan Abdellatif, an East Jerusalem businessman, was one of the less gloomy ones. He expressed concern about the skill of the Palestinian negotiators up against a tough Israeli team, but was happy the talks were occurring and hoped that they might lead to an agreement.

“We have to talk to each other,” he said by telephone. “There is no other choice.”

The broad outlook in Israel was that the opening round gave little indication of where things were headed.

“What was presented yesterday and two days ago in Washington was theater,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The actors, he noted, “recited their texts well and read them somberly, with cautious optimism and stately responsibility, as required.” He added, “It was dignified, dignified to the point of boredom.”

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, saw cynicism on both sides. In an opinion article in the newspaper Maariv, he said the Palestinians actually wanted Israel to keep holding the West Bank so as to face international censure and isolation. Israel, he wrote, wants only to give the impression of seeking compromise as “a tax being paid to the United States,” but has no plans to give up anything important. He said the only hope would be a solution presented by President Obama.

Many analysts focused on the Sept. 26 deadline, when Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank ends, as a likely crisis point. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly indicated that he will not extend the suspension, and Mr. Abbas has said that failure to extend it will be cause to end the talks.

But the little that did emerge from Washington suggested that the two leaders were seeking a way around the problem. They are scheduled to meet again on Sept. 14, probably in the Egyptian Sinai, in the presence of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the process.

Aides to Mr. Netanyahu have indicated that he proposes placing all the difficult topics on the table at once — settlements, borders, Jerusalem, security, and Palestinian refugees and their descendants — with the two leaders meeting every two weeks. By setting up a framework whereby no single issue exists on its own and all are negotiated at the highest level and in secrecy, he hopes to promote a process in which both sides will yield.

That way, he hopes, when Sept. 26 arrives and limited building resumes, Mr. Abbas will not walk out because settlement building will be only one issue of several he is in the middle of negotiating.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, has already let slip in an interview with the newspaper Haaretz that Israel has plans for dividing Jerusalem, said to be anathema to Mr. Netanyahu.

“West Jerusalem and 12 Jewish neighborhoods that are home to 200,000 residents will be ours,” Mr. Barak said this week in the interview. “The Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinians live will be theirs. There will be a special regime in place along with agreed-upon arrangements in the Old City, the Mount of Olives and the City of David.”

Those known to reject even the idea of these talks — Hamas among the Palestinians and the settlers among the Israelis — expressed confidence in their failure. The settlers said they were already building new homes in defiance of the construction freeze and the Hamas attacks.

In Gaza, Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad held a rally on Friday in opposition to any compromise with Israel.

Ismail Ashqar, a Hamas official, said the entire land of Palestine, including what is today Israel, was “an Islamic endowment for all Muslims,” emphasizing that the Palestinian Authority and its negotiators “cannot give up any single piece of dust of its soil.”

Khaled al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader, praised Hamas militants who attacked Israelis this week near Hebron and Ramallah, killing four and wounding two, saying they “fed pain to the enemy.” Mr. Batsh added that “negotiations can only be stopped by a barrage of bullets and loud blasts.”

A few commentators left room for optimism and surprises. Mr. Barnea, the Yediot Aharonot columnist, said at the end of his column that if what had occurred in Washington was a show, Mr. Netanyahu had played it well.

“And maybe this wasn’t a show,” he wrote. “Not just a show. Not this time.”

Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.
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