Jews the world over are currently in the midst of the Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim
– a time of reflection between Rosh Hashanah
– the new year – and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. For Muslims, Ramadan drew to a close last week, and the Eid al-Fitr festival, the celebration ending the month-long period of prayer and contemplation, was celebrated over the weekend.
The Americans who hope to broker peace between these two famously warring peoples are hoping that all of those prayers and all of that introspection will oil the potentially stuck gears on the peace-process machine. The first major stumbling block to peace looms in just under two weeks: the end of the ten-month Israeli moratorium on settlement building. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has urged
the Israelis to extend the freeze on building. And, on Friday, the second day of the Jewish New Year, President Obama called upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the moratorium. "What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that given, so far, the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium," the president told reporters. It's not just that it makes sense: the Palestinian delegation has promised to walk away
from the negotiating table if settlement building recommences.
Over the weekend, Peace Now, the Israeli organization, published a report
detailing that "at least 2,066 housing units" were essentially ready to go up on Sept. 27. Further, the report said, another 11,000 housing units "had been approved for construction," meaning that if the moratorium lapses, a total of 13,000 units could be built.
And yet late Monday evening, en route to Sharm-El Sheikh
, Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton struck a buoyant, even optimistic note with reporters
, promising that even if the Israeli moratorium was not officially extended, an agreement was within reach to enable the continuation of the talks
. "The United States believes the moratorium should be extended," she said. "At the same time, we recognize an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and Palestinians on actions that could be taken by both sides, that would enable the negotiations to continue, would be in the best interests of both sides." Cheerful, but not Pollyannaish, the secretary flatly stated, "For me, this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state."
The secretary might have felt more confident in light of Israeli Prime Minister's late Sunday indication that there might be room to maneuver on settlements.
One insider who spoke on condition of anonymity told Politics Daily that it was unlikely the talks would have even begun without back-channel communication indicating settlements would be halted. For Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose right wing coalition rejects any extension of the moratorium, and the settlers' movement, which has loudly announced
it will hold him to his promise not to extend the building freeze, such an agreement threatens his hold on the prime minister's seat. The Jerusalem Post reported late Monday evening
that Netanyahu was expected to use the first full opening day of talks in the region, Tuesday, to lay out the options on settlements. Ha'aretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, reported that Netanyahu had spent three hours in meetings
with his ministers on the issue of settlements alone. He left with no resolution.
The American team – Special Envoy George Mitchell joins Secretary Clinton – faces four days of tough talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Talks begin in Sharm el-Sheikh, a Sinai peninsula Red Sea resort town known for drawing in dignitaries with weighty issues. On Wednesday, the meetings move to Jerusalem (the first time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Prime Minister Netanyahu since the Israeli leader took office) and then, on Thursday, to Ramallah, on the West Bank. Joining the Americans are the Egyptians and Jordanians.
In the air, if not yet in the region, Secretary Clinton announced she was confident the first, looming, stumbling block facing Middle East peace could be surmounted.