US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned the Middle East that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may be “the last chance for a very long time” to reach an agreement.
In an unusual joint interview with Israeli and Palestinian television broadcasters a day after she presided over the launch of the first direct talks in two years, Mrs Clinton said the rise of Iranian-backed extremist ideology in the Middle East was a major reason why time was short.
Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions have surfaced as a new motivating factor for a Middle East resolution. There have been growing Israeli warnings that the nation might take military action to blunt Iran’s nuclear programme, and even some of Israel’s Arab neighbours have shown concerns.
The US administration believes a successful Middle East peace deal would limit Iran’s ability to use tensions in the region to justify its behaviour.
“I think that time is not on the side of either Israeli or Palestinian aspirations for security, peace and a state,” Mrs Clinton said. Iranian-sponsored “rejectionist ideology” and a “commitment to violence” by those opposed to peace make reaching an agreement quickly all the more necessary, she said.
“The United States,” she added, “wants to weigh in on the side of leaders and people who see this as maybe the last chance for a very long time to resolve this.”
Shortly before the interview, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the peace talks, saying “the fate of Palestine will be decided in Palestine and through resistance and not in Washington”.
Iran supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the controlling authority in the Gaza Strip. Gaza along with the West Bank is supposed to form an eventual Palestinian state. Hamas also rejected the talks this week.
The Obama administration wants a peace deal concluded within a year, and both sides pledged yesterday to try to meet that goal in successive rounds of talks. Despite early positive signals from Israeli and Palestinian leaders, hopes for an agreement rest on overcoming significant obstacles and decades of hostility and suspicion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet for a second round of talks in Egypt on September 14-15, then about every two weeks while lower-level negotiations continue on ironing out specifics of compromises that both sides will have to make.
After the meeting in Egypt, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will probably meet, as well as US president Barack Obama, again on the sidelines of the coming United Nations General Assembly session in the third week of September.
The talks will face their first real test shortly after the gathering at the United Nations. An Israeli freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank is due to expire then. The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks if the freeze is not extended. The Israelis have said the freeze will be allowed to expire.
“The Israelis think that it will be difficult to extend the moratorium, while this issue is very important for us,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “It’s a make it or break it. It will not be possible to continue the negotiations if settlement activities continue.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, conceded that the settlement freeze was “a major hurdle” to overcome. He said negotiators were “very intensely” discussing the matter but urged the Palestinians not to use it as a way of scuttling the talks.
“The Palestinians shouldn’t cherry-pick one issue and make it a condition,” he said. He added that Israel was willing to discuss settlements in their entirety as “a core issue” in the talks.
Mrs Clinton would not address the settlement freeze in the interview and US officials have said the way forward must be handled by the parties themselves, although they have made it no secret that they would like the moratorium to continue in some form beyond its September 26 expiry.