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Skepticism Widespread in Mideast Over New Peace Talks

Jerusalem - As the Obama administration heralded a new round of face-to-face talks on Mideast peace

Jerusalem – As the Obama administration heralded a new round of face-to-face talks on Mideast peace, the abiding reaction across the region Friday was skepticism, with many expressing doubt that conditions are ripe for much to come from negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The talks are set to resume Sept. 2 after nearly two years.

Several coalition partners of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as members of his Likud Party, have threatened to topple him if he proceeds with some of the compromises the Palestinians expect in peace talks, such as an Israeli withdrawal from some Jewish settlements.

“Netanyahu knows not to go forth with the settlement freeze or with other stipulations placed by the Palestinians. We will not leave behind our duties to the settlers,” said Danny Danon, a Likud member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Palestinians said the atmosphere for peace talks was less positive than in past years. Speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, one member of the Palestinian negotiation team predicted that it would be “very difficult, though not impossible” to make progress under the U.S. initiative.

“It would appear that the gulfs between us are as wide as ever,” the official said. “We appreciate the new U.S. effort, but we have yet to see any willingness from the Israeli side to make peace.”

The so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers — which comprises the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — issued a declaration of support, saying that talks should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state.”

The Palestinians responded positively to that statement but were awaiting a meeting of Palestinian and Arab officials before making additional comments.

Netanyahu said in a statement that reaching a deal would be difficult but possible and that he approached the talks “with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel’s national security interests, foremost of which is security.”

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In formally announcing the U.S. invitation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu would meet directly in Washington with the aim of a peace deal within a year.

Clinton said the talks should take place without preconditions. “It is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it,” she said. “The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks.”

Mitchell said the U.S. goal was “an agreement that will end the conflict for all time and will result in the establishment of a viable, democratic and independent state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel.” Asked what Hamas’ involvement would be in the talks, he said, “None.”

Hamas is a militant Iranian-backed Islamic organization that wrested control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after it won a majority of seats in January 2006 elections. Pledged to Israel’s destruction, it’s listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and other countries.

Mitchell took questions from reporters but avoided direct answers as to how the U.S. enticed the Palestinians to participate, why either side would be willing to make new concessions in their domestic political climates, under what conditions the U.S. would insert its own proposals into the talks and how U.S.-Iran relations might affect the process.

“The reality is, of course, that there are some in both societies who do not believe that the other side is serious, who do not trust the other side and do not wish to proceed with the other side,” Mitchell said. “If we accept the premise that because some in one or both societies hold these views that we cannot proceed, then, of course, what we are doing is consigning all of those people to never-ending conflict, never-ending difficulties.”

It was Friday evening in Jerusalem when Clinton spoke in Washington, so the response was somewhat muted as Jews began to celebrate the Sabbath and Palestinians prepared for the iftar meal to mark the end of the day’s Ramadan fast.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had petitioned for the official relaunch to take place in his country, but was “satisfied” to attend and contribute to the talks in Washington, Egyptian officials in Israel said.

President Barack Obama has invited Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II to Washington for bilateral talks with him and for a dinner that would include Abbas, Netanyahu and quartet representative Tony Blair on the eve of the Sept. 2 talks.

Israel’s settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are on land earmarked for a Palestinian state and have remained a key stumbling block in peace talks. Netanyahu’s 10-month freeze in settlement expansion is due to expire in mid-September.

Palestinian officials have said that a continuing freeze in settlement construction was a condition of their participation in the talks. In three statements this year, the quartet has echoed that sentiment and urged Israel to stop building in the settlements.

The current statement by the quartet gives Palestinians the minimum amount of political cover to continue in the peace talks, editorials in the Arab press said.

While Netanyahu heads one of the most right-wing governments Israel has seen in years, Abbas is still struggling to reach a deal with the leadership of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Mitchell has engaged in shuttle diplomacy since May to try to reach a consensus on “final status” issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been on hold for nearly two years. They collapsed when Israel launched a three-week offensive in Gaza that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Talev reported from Washington.)

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