The summer of 2010 will be remembered as one of the hottest in many cities around the world. This is particularly true for Washington DC and Jerusalem, even if for different reasons. It is little wonder then that words such as 'chill' and 'freezing' have become popular terms.
On September 2, U.S. President Barack Obama brings Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together for direct peace talks. Obama's past frosty attitude and posture toward Netanyahu and his policies are not forgotten in Israel but he and his administration seemed to be warming up recently. The conditions prior to the talks are precarious and risks are plenty. Especially the struggle over a freeze (sic!) of settlement construction and its continuation after September 26 come into focus. Abbas cooly gave a heads-up that he would withdraw from the talks should construction resume.
On the other side of the table, reports of an Israeli readiness to extend the settlement construction freeze seems premature. Prior to his departure to Washington, Netanyahu addressed his Likud party's gathering for the Jewish New Year. Tellingly, a continued freeze was not mentioned. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who refused to join the trip gives Netanyahu the cold shoulder and the influential Likud hawks Vice Prime Ministers Silvan Shalom and Moshe Yaalon, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, are obviously opposed. And if that wasn't enough already, the climate before the talks became even more chilling when the spiritual leader of Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef volunteered that Abbas was evil and that he prayed for his and the Palestinians' death.
It is not at all clear that Netanyahu and Abbas will bring anything new to the table to discuss. Netanyahu launched a trial balloon by proposing bi-weekly meetings with Abbas but the Palestinians have not responded in kind with equally calming suggestions. President Obama has the tough task at hand to create a warm and constructive atmosphere, come up with creative proposals and exert pressure at the right time, on the right party. The consequences of failed talks are known.
- Israelis are already skeptical that Israel will be pressed to make even more concessions without anything tangible in return. Moreover, they fear that it is inevitable that a failure will be blamed on Netanyahu. His coalition is in danger in either scenario.
- The Palestinians also see threats on several fronts. A collapse of talks might trigger another uprising, be it spontaneous or 'spontaneous,' that is planned and calculated. In the West Bank Hamas might consider a coup and depose of Abbas and the Fatah. In Gaza, Hamas rules unopposed and is convinced to be on a winning streak. Just two days before the peace talks in Washington, Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis by firing at their car near Kiryat Arba - a deadly reminder of their opposition to any warming between Israel and Palestinians.
- In the region, the moderate regimes in Egypt and Jordan are also under pressure. Egypt is under pressure by Islamist opposition and a transition of power looms and nobody knows who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak. In Jordan, the Palestinians are on edge.
- Iran is keenly aware of its power to disrupt any progress in the peace talks through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza.
Every recent U.S. President had his own 'hot' Middle East party - a moment when they decided that they were ready to put their prestige on the line to achieve what had eluded every single predecessor: Peace. The honor roll includes Jimmy Carter (Camp David), George Bush (Madrid Conference), Bill Clinton (Camp David 2000), George W. Bush (Annapolis). Will September 2 be a success and what would make it a success? Politicians and commentators in the United States and Israel do not quite dare to speculate what the 'temperature' will be on September 26, the date when the settlement freeze is set to expire. We will soon know if Israeli-Palestinian relations will be warming up or if we're heading for a deep freeze.