U.S. and Israel get their direct talks. Now what?

U.S. and Israel get their direct talks. Now what?

Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it. Now that it appears direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could begin as soon as Sept. 1, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas may want to keep that old proverb in mind.

Reports out of Washington, the Middle East, and Europe this week suggesting Abbas has finally — and reluctantly — agreed to meet Netanyahu raise more questions than they answer.

Netanyahu has been calling for face-to-face talks since he came to office 18 months ago, although insisting they be “without preconditions,” a position reinforced by his inner cabinet on Aug. 15. How serious is he when he says he’s ready to make “painful sacrifices?”

Preconditions have been Abbas’ trademark. He has stubbornly resisted sitting down with Netanyahu unless the Israeli government meets his demands, but he appears to have backed down under intense pressure from American, European, and even some Arab leaders. How many of those demands have been met?

Palestinians remain deeply divided. If Abbas can’t make peace with Hamas, how can he be expected to make peace with Israel? How can Israel make a deal with only half the Palestinians while the other half rejects peace?

Obama has made relaunching the peace process a centerpiece of his foreign policy, but he appears to want it more than Abbas and Netanyahu. How much political capital is he prepared to expend on these reluctant peacemakers?

Arab leaders have been talking about peace but mainly from the sidelines. Now, when they’ll be needed most, will they have the courage to give Abbas the critical political backing he will need to make the tough decisions essential to establishing the Palestinian state? Will they give Abbas the protective cover he will need when the radicals accuse him of selling out to the Zionists and infidels? Will they have the courage to tell their own people it is acceptable to settle for less than their uncompromising demands of the past six decades?

Are they prepared to offer goodwill gestures to Israel?

It’s hard to tell who is more worried that the impending negotiations might actually produce a peace agreement, the Israeli right or the Arab left.

It’s no secret that within his own cabinet Netanyahu faces adamant opposition to any compromises with the Palestinians. Some of his coalition partners could try to sabotage the talks or bring down his government if negotiations look like they’re getting serious.

Will Netanyahu buckle under or play one of his trump cards: a new coalition with the centrist Kadima party and Labor, or even new elections?

Hamas and nearly a dozen other Palestinian terror groups denounced direct talks recently as a Zionist attempt “aiming at wiping out the national rights of the Palestinians.” Their position remains the Three No’s: no talks, no peace, no Israel.

U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell appears to have worked out a deal to bring Netanyahu and Abbas to the table after 18 months of shuttle diplomacy and nearly two years since talks broke off in the wake of the Gaza War.

Look for Netanyahu to say he made no commitments going in and Abbas to suggest he has secret commitments from the Americans and Europeans. The prime minister said he opposes setting deadlines or a “predetermined agenda,” which is what Abbas has been insisting on all along.

Obama is caught in the middle. The political victory of getting direct talks is threatened by the lack of enthusiasm by the two parties. For each of them the greatest motivation appears to be peace with Washington, not each other, and if sitting together is what it takes, they’ll give it a try.

The administration has been reminding Abbas he needs the talks to remain relevant. And Netanyahu just repaired relations with the administration and doesn’t need another spat.

“Is this just a dance before one or the other walks out?” asked a Congressional Mideast expert. “Will both leaders be eyeing the exit before talks even start, just looking for an excuse to take a hike and blame the other? How committed are they to a successful conclusion?”

We’ve been hearing Israeli, Palestinian, American, European, and Arab leaders say they want to see peace talks begin. They’re about to get their wish. Are they ready for it?

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