Seven years after the failed Camp David summit, and six and a half years after negotiations ended with the Taba talks, Israel has started talking with the Palestinians on a peace agreement again. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho tomorrow is supposed to launch dialogue on the future Palestinian state. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the parties their homework during her visit last week: to reach an agreed-on diplomatic formula by November's Washington summit and to continue confidence-building gestures.
Veteran negotiators in the current government - President Shimon Peres from the Oslo days, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Camp David - are, not coincidentally, much more skeptical than Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni regarding the chances of renewing the process.
Peres is said to believe Gaza is lost to Hamas, and that any arrangement must involve Jordan, too. Barak says Hamas and Fatah both want the same thing, but differ in their methods. Minister Haim Ramon, who has had thousands of hours of negotiations with the Palestinians, stands somewhere in between, with his partial convergence plan and his call to give dialogue a chance.
During Rice's recent visit, her hosts heard a new term: "fundamental issues." Behind closed doors, she was more interested in practical action like the rehabilitation of the Palestinian security forces and removing roadblocks, and talked less concretely about the stages that will bring about a Palestinian state.
Jerusalem was busy lowering expectations, and Olmert's bureau said the leaders were not seeking to formulate an "agreement of principles," but rather "agreed-on principles" - which is the same thing, but less frightening. The bureau cautioned diplomatic correspondents not to get their hopes up.
Nevertheless, Rice heard a different tune this week in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Olmert agreed to a proposal raised a year ago by Rice and Livni to talk to Abbas and Palestinian moderates. Olmert calls it "principles" to emphasize that implementation is far-off and doubtful. And Salam Fayad's appointment as prime minister has given Washington hope that something has changed for the better among the Palestinians.
Experience teaches that the real bargaining will begin only in the days and hours running up to the summit, when Olmert and Abbas are already on their way to Washington.
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