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Reinventing the wheel in the Middle East

Just days after President Obama called for direct talks to begin between Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday appeared to reject the idea, saying it would be "pointless and futile" unless the two sides first reach agreement on the parameters of the talks.

For many outside observers, that sounds like arguing about the size of the table. Why not start talks immediately, without preconditions, as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he wants to do? After all, everyone knows what needs to be discussed.

Ten years ago this month, then-President Bill Clinton convened a summit at Camp David in an effort to forge a final peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The effort died amid a spasm of violence known as the second intifada, but the two sides came very close to reaching a deal on many of the vexing "final status" issues that divide the two sides, including borders, the status of Palestinian refugees and how to handle the holy sites in Jerusalem.

But nothing is ever simple in the Middle East. From the Palestinian perspective, talks without any defined agenda -- precisely what happened at Camp David a decade ago -- are a recipe for endless negotiations. But from the Israeli perspective, any effort to define the agenda now will be seen as giving up ground before the talks start. That is especially problematic for Netanyahu's fragile coalition, which includes lawmakers opposed to almost any concessions to the Palestinians. For instance, the Palestinians want to discuss any land swaps using the map of Israel before it seized territory in the 1967 Six-Day War, whereas Israel feels that such a starting point would put it at a negotiating disadvantage.

The Obama administration has tried to bridge the gap with rhetoric that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton utters as a mantra at news briefings related to the Middle East: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent, viable, and contiguous state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." This carefully negotiated language, the results of months of preparation by special envoy George Mitchell, tries to recognize each side's goals for the talks without any binding commitments.

There are other complications. Israel, under U.S. pressure, last year agreed to a partial moratorium on settlement construction that is due to expire in September. The Palestinians do not want to launch talks without a commitment that the settlement construction will halt; the Israelis feel the Palestinians have wasted months on indirect talks and see no need to continue.

The difficulty ahead is best illustrated by comparing the situation today with the last time serious talks were launched, at Annapolis in late 2007. The Bush administration at the time tried hard to get both sides to agree to the parameters of the talks, but failed. Then-President George W. Bush was only able to read a careful statement in which the two sides agreed "to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements." Everyone understood that "core issues" meant borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and Israel's security, but it still could not be spelled out.

But the difference between now and then is that Abbas and Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister at the time, had already spent months meeting with each other and building an atmosphere of trust. Lower-level Israeli and Palestinian officials had also met repeatedly and were prepared for real talks. Olmert and Abbas appeared to commit to reaching a deal, so the two sides actually discussed some of the most sensitive issues between them. Even then, they did not reach a deal. (Both sides blame the other, but that's another story.)

As of yet, despite Mitchell's repeated trips to the region, that level of trust does not exist between Netanyahu and Abbas. That is the missing ingredient that will give the words on paper -- or words not written down -- any real meaning.

By Glenn Kessler  | July 12, 2010; 1:40 PM ET
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