published Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Renewed talks offer bit of hope

Given on-going events in the region, it's hardly surprising that the first meeting in more than a year between the top Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators on Tuesday in Jordan attracted relatively little notice. Center stage went to the increasingly hostile diplomatic exchanges between Iran and nations intent on imposing stiffer sanctions to halt Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. That's understandable, but the Amman talks should not be ignored or, worse, dismissed out of hand. They are vital to international stability.

While no real progress was made in the discussions, none was expected. Both sides did agree to keep talking. That counts as a breakthrough. Earlier peace talks ended in September, 2010, when an Israel agreement to limit settlement construction ended. Until Tuesday, Palestinian leaders had refused to renew talks until Israel halted settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Those are areas that the Palestinians hope will eventually be a part of a future Palestinian state. Israel, despite growing world opinion against the practice, continues to build in those areas.

Given that, Tuesday's meeting, convened by the "Quartet" of nations serving as Mideast mediators -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- offers renewed hope for real discussion rather than overheated rhetoric about the future of the region. The "Quartet" hopes to broker a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians by year's end. In some circles, that's viewed as an unrealistic goal.

Still, the fact that the two sides apparently talked civilly after a 15-month hiatus counts for something. So should a report that the Palestinian and Israeli envoys met privately with their Jordanian host to discuss security and border issues, keys to full resumption of long-stalled peace talks. Tuesday's talks, at least one diplomat familiar with the discussions said, were "serious." Neither Israeli nor Palestinian participants would confirm that view, but the agreement to continue talks suggests that substantive matters were discussed and that accommodation is more a possibility now than at any time since the fall of 2010.

The decision to keep talking, while hopeful, means little if no other progress is made. For that to occur, there will have to be some give-and-take on both sides. At a minimum, Palestinians will have to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist and provide security guarantees. Israel will have to cede land for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Those concessions won't come easy for either side. Both must resolve pressing domestic political issues before meaningful talks can continue.

Still, the agreement to continue the long-stalled negotiations is reason to believe that at least one of the many major issues in the Mideast is a tiny -- very tiny -- bit closer to resolution now than it was just a few days ago.

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