"Joined by the generations, those who have gone before, and those who will follow," President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opened formal peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians today.
The imagery has certainly been impressive. Yesterday it was President Obama, flanked by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on one side, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the other striding purposefully,
if not altogether confidently, into a working dinner. This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the lead
, seated between the pair. An American flag with Israeli and Palestinian flags were behind her, the men nodded to each other at the outset, and shook hands after the talks began.
Now that the talks are underway, the question remains: will the parties be able to get beyond words and onto substance? Or will the memory of words and promises made and abandoned, met time and again by continued actions in the opposite direction on the ground, trip up this newest effort towards Middle East peace before the baby has even left the maternity ward?
"For many of us in this room, this is not the first trip to the negotiating table," Mrs. Clinton said this morning
at the State Department, acknowledging the nearly twenty years since the beginning of this process.
"We have been here before and we know how difficult the road ahead will be," she said. "Those that oppose the cause of peace will try in every way possible to sabotage this process, as we have already seen this week. Those here today, and the veterans you have seen the cost of continued conflict."
The true test of the peace process, she added, will not be the "first day or the last day" of talks, but "all those long days in the middle when the path to peace seems hidden."
The first days have not seemed all that easy. As Netanyahu arrived in the United States on Tuesday, news came in from Israel that four Israelis, including a pregnant mother of six, had been gunned
down outside Hebron. Abbas condemned the killings. Both sides, and Obama and Clinton spoke about the need to end violence, about those who would steal the soul of these talks before they have begun.
But all parties know that it is not just these killings, as horrific as they are, that will be the sticking point in the coming days. Those will be the same "final status" issues that have tripped up two decades of leadership. Security. Borders. Refugees. Water rights and Settlements.
This morning. those issues were raised again in Netanyahu's opening statement in which he recalled the biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael burying their father – "our father" – Abraham together in Hebron.
"I see in you a partner for peace," he said to Abbas. "Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict. Now this will not be easy. A true peace, a lasting peace will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions on both sides. From the Israeli side. From the Palestinian side. From my side and from your side. The people of Israel....are prepared to walk this road and to go a long way in a short time to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security prosperity and good neighbors."
Hoping to transcend the challenges, complexities and years of hostilities that has sidetracked past peace talks, Obama had appealed yesterday to a higher power: fatherhood. Obama noted that this is the month of Elul
for Jews, when their High Holy Days take place, and Ramadan
for Muslims, both periods of "contemplation" and reflection, and he urged the leaders to address the issue of peace as torch holders for a history of peace seekers, as well as parents who desire a better world for their children.
"Each of you are the heirs of peacemakers who dared greatly -- Begin and Sadat, Rabin and King Hussein -- statesmen who saw the world as it was but also imagined the world as it should be. It is the shoulders of our predecessors upon which we stand. It is their work that we carry on. Now, like each of them, we must ask, do we have the wisdom and the courage to walk the path of peace?
All of us are leaders of our people, who, no matter the language they speak or the faith they practice, all basically seek the same things: to live in security, free from fear; to live in dignity, free from want; to provide for their families and to realize a better tomorrow. Tonight, they look to us, and each of us must decide, will we work diligently to fulfill their aspirations? And though each of us holds a title of honor -- President, Prime Minister, King -- we are bound by the one title we share. We are fathers, blessed with sons and daughters. So we must ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren.
Netanyahu picked up the same thread in his opening remarks last night.
We seek a peace that will last for generations -- our generation, our children's generation, and the next," he said, noting he was not in Washington to "play a blame game" because "everybody loses if there's no peace.
But he also drew a firm line:
We want the skyline of the West Bank to be dominated by apartment towers -- not missiles. We want the roads of the West Bank to flow with commerce -- not terrorists. And this is not a theoretic request for our people. We left Lebanon, and we got terror. We left Gaza, and we got terror once again. We want to ensure that territory we'll concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave armed at the heart of Israel -- and may I add, also aimed at every one of us sitting on this stage. This is why a defensible peace requires security arrangements that can withstand the test of time and the many challenges that are sure to confront us. And there will be many challenges, both great and small. Let us not get bogged down by every difference between us. Let us direct our courage, our thinking, and our decisions at those historic decisions that lie ahead.
Abbas responded with his own set of marker
We call on the Israelis to carry out their obligations, including a freeze on settlements activities, which is not setting a precondition but a call to implement an agreed obligation and to end all the closure and blockade, preventing freedom of movement, including the [Gaza] siege. We will spare no effort and will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure that these new negotiations achieve their goals and objectives in dealing with all of the issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, border security, water, as well as the release of all our prisoners -- in order to achieve peace. The people of our area are looking for peace that achieves freedom, independence, and justice to the Palestinian people in their country and in their homeland and in the diaspora -- our people who have endured decades of longstanding suffering."
With their lines drawn, the two men joined President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Jordanian King Abdullah for an intimate working dinner. This morning. as Secretary Clinton concluded the opening statements, she implored all to "get to work."