As the first direct talks in three years between Israelis and Palestinians get underway in Jerusalem on Wednesday, hardliners on both sides are ramping up their opposition to re-engagement. For the maximalists, many of the proposals under consideration represent a form of betrayal. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who have both taken steps to re-launch the peace talks, the hardliners represent a major headache.
To many Israeli settlers, Abbas is an unworthy negotiating partner and any forfeiture of land to the Palestinians is unacceptable. "As far as we're concerned, the Israeli government does not have a mandate to force us out of our homes," David Ha'ivri, a director at the Shomron Liaison Office, a group that advocates for Jewish West Bank settlers, told The Cable. "So if the Netanyahu government does decide to pull out, we're saying to the Israeli government: ‘Sorry, you don't have a mandate to force us out.'"
To Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, the peace talks will only serve to benefit the Israelis. "We renew our rejection of these futile talks, and consider them purely a means for the occupation (Israel) to look good to the international community," senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters on Monday. "We call on the Palestinian people to unite in confronting the crime that is the peace talks."
Across the Middle East, there's skepticism that the negotiations will accomplish much -- and concern that if and when talks collapse, the results could be disastrous.
"My concern is what happens when the negotiations reach a dead end," Dani Dayan, the Yesha Council's chief foreign envoy, told The Cable. "There are two options: They can implode causing no collateral damage or they could explode causing a lot of debris and violence as what happened in the year 2000," a reference to the Second Intifada, which followed the collapse of peace talks led by the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's talks, of course, will differ from face-to-face negotiations conducted by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past. Absent from the talks will be Netanyahu, Abbas, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry. The protocol this time around starts with a meeting between the two appointed negotiators and neither having the power to cut a deal. It brings together Israeli negotiators Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli Foreign Minister, and Isaac Molcho, a prime ministerial aide, and Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat, a longtime negotiator, and Muhammed Shtayyeh, a Fatah official. The American envoys for the meeting include Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein.
The State Department has made clear that the negotiations will be draped in secrecy as to ensure trust between the two sides. But while that may help the negotiating process, it leaves the hardliners on both sides to toss bombs at the leaders working for peace. "Secretary Kerry convinced the Israelis to release the prisoners which is a stain on American democracy," said Dayan. "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist."
"It's not helpful coming in as a superpower and declaring a deadline," added Ha'ivri. "Things take time in the Middle East. The culture here is different. The people here are different."