By Russell Berman - 09/02/10 10:00 AM EDT
The prevailing view on Capitol Hill is that the Middle East peace talks beginning Thursday in Washington have only a slim chance for success.
Leading Republicans have warned of the potential threats to Israel’s security and questioned whether the Palestinian leaders are sincerely committed to peace. Democrats, meanwhile, have combined praise for the resumption of direct talks with caution about the prospects for success.
“The risks are high because if the administration is unable to deliver, it only aggravates the situation on the ground,” said Cantor, who spoke to The Hill before four Israelis were shot dead by Hamas gunmen in the West Bank on Tuesday night.
Cantor also said he is “very concerned” about a threat from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pull out of the talks if Israel resumes the construction of West Bank settlements later this month.
“That sort of renders the talks meaningless,” said Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House.
Cantor said the Obama administration’s relationship with the American Jewish community is “strained at best” and argued that the president should be focusing on the nuclear threat from Iran rather than the peace talks.
Obama welcomed Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington on Wednesday, a day before the two leaders were scheduled to begin the first direct negotiations between the parties in nearly two years.
Speaking after a bilateral meeting with Netanyahu, Obama denounced the West Bank killings but said they were “not going to stop us from not only ensuring a secure Israel, but also securing a longer-lasting peace in which people throughout the region can take a different course.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that while “a true and lasting peace … is something we all want,” she questioned the Palestinians’ ability to deliver on their promises.
“Unfortunately, if history is any indication — and given that the Palestinian leadership has failed to take concrete steps to demonstrate it is committed to such a lasting peace — I am not optimistic about the prospects for these talks,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill.
She also said the Obama administration has taken too hard of a line with Israel and failed to hold Palestinian leaders accountable.
“This must not be yet another round of pressure on Israel and only Israel,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), issued a statement Wednesday offering his "strong support" to both the Israelis and the Palestinian leaders.
"Progress in these talks will depend on the ability of the respective leaders to make courageous decisions in the face of domestic political challenges and efforts by terrorists and extremists to derail the process, such as yesterday’s tragic shooting in the West Bank," Berman said. "In particular, it is critical that the leaders take personal charge of the talks and commit to persistent, uninterrupted efforts to reach a solution, including an end of conflict and claims."
In more cautious comments last month, however, Berman praised the talks but added that he was “under no illusions as to the difficult nature these negotiations will pose.”
Berman’s statement echoed those of other leading Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who called the talks a “welcome development” when they were announced last month but warned that “we must not have any illusions about the enormous difficulties and challenges ahead, nor the hurdles all parties must overcome.”
The mood on Capitol Hill reflects widespread doubts about the prospects for the talks, which are complicated by circumstances in the region and the deep chasm between the two sides.
The divide between Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and Abbas’s Fatah party in the West Bank has raised questions about whether the Palestinians could guarantee a peaceful coexistence with Israel. Hamas has denounced the talks and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
The talks are further complicated by the fact that Israel is confronting the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, which it has deemed an existential threat.
But the first major hurdle in the talks between Abbas and Netanyahu will likely be Israel’s moratorium on new settlements in the West Bank, which is set to end on Sept. 26.
“This is the first test and an absolutely critical one,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the left-leaning group J-Street. “The ball is in Israel’s court.”
Ben-Ami said the broader challenge for all the leading participants and observers is to set appropriate expectations for the negotiations.
“It’s just important that we not allow ourselves to get caught up in that Washington cynicism,” Ben-Ami said.