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Q&A: What's at stake in Mideast talks

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
Palestinians attend a rally protesting against direct peace talks with Israel in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 10.
Palestinians attend a rally protesting against direct peace talks with Israel in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 10.
  • Israel and Palestinians resume direct talks in Washington
  • Key issues include future of Jerusalem, status of Jewish settlers in West Bank
  • Direct talks have been held on and off for around 17 years, but peace remains elusive
  • Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic group in charge of Gaza, rejects direct talks

Jerusalem (CNN) -- The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority met in Washington on Thursday to resume direct talks. CNN's Jerusalem correspondent Paula Hancocks explains what's at stake:

When did the two sides last meet?

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in December 2008 shortly before Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. Israel said it was responding to shelling from Hamas militants in Gaza. Israel killed between 1,100 and 1,400 Palestinians, depending on differing reports. The dead were mostly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials; mostly combatants, according to the Israeli military. The anger and outrage felt by Palestinians and many others around the world during and after the Gaza war meant Palestinian politicians were a million miles away from talking peace. Thirteen Israelis were also killed in the three-week armed conflict.

Why meet now?

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has invested a lot of effort into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During his election campaign Obama said he would deal with the issue from day one of his presidency.

Video: Israel, Palestine to resume talks
Video: Mideast talks to resume
Video: Israel: 'Historic' peace is possible
Video: Palestinian response to Mideast talks

It was an election promise some feel he didn't quite keep -- the global financial crisis and domestic issues kept the conflict lower down his "to-do list" -- but on the third day of his presidency he appointed Senator George Mitchell as his envoy to try to bring the two sides closer.

The Obama administration wants and needs this to work -- the president's foreign policy credibility could rise or fall depending on what happens in the peace talks. One senior diplomatic source in the U.S. also confirmed what most people here in the Middle East already knew -- talks had to start before Israel's temporary freeze on new settlements in the West Bank ends on September 26 or they may not have started all.

Israel wants to see some progress in return for the 10-month moratorium. Without the freeze the Palestinians would never have agreed to meet.

But the freeze itself, and whether it is extended, could still prove an obstacle to direct talks.

What key issues are on the table?

The issue that is crucial to both sides and has sunk peace talks in the past is the future of Jerusalem.

Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its undivided eternal capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, as their capital and considers Jewish neighborhoods built there as illegal settlements. It's an issue both sides are resolute on.

Other crucial issues include final borders which will have to deal with the status of some 280,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Palestinians also want the right of return -- meaning those who were forced to leave their homes in 1948 when the state of Israel was created can return to their homes or receive compensation. Many of those houses no longer exist or are inhabited by Israelis. Political commentators say it is a demand Israel will never and can never accept.

Who is influencing Israel?

The U.S. refers to Israel as a strong ally and often announces to the world that Israel's security is of the utmost importance. But it is no secret that the relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was frosty at best early on in both men's terms.

An Israeli refusal for many months to announce a settlement freeze tested the personal friendship.

The announcement -- during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden -- of a huge expansion in an east Jerusalem neighborhood termed as a settlement by the United Nations, was there was seen as provocative.

But those days appear behind us. The settlement freeze was announced and the Israeli prime minister has been welcomed back twice to the White House.

The U.S. is considered by most political experts to be the sole country that can influence Israel, not least because the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion a year in direct and military aid.

Who is influencing the Palestinian Authority?

At the end of July, the Arab League endorsed direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians but left the timing to the Palestinians.

This, as well as U.S. demands, put further pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to direct talks. He had insisted he would not agree to talks until all settlement activity ended, including east Jerusalem and until Israel agreed to negotiate based on the 1967 borders.

U.S. pressure and public Arab League support for the talks forced his hand.

Can these direct talks work?

A move from proximity talks to direct talks has to be a positive move whichever way you look at it. But Israelis and Palestinians have been here before.

There have been direct talks on and off for around 17 years and peace has remained elusive. Both sides have been bitterly disappointed in the past when deals have collapsed and for that reason, the public will need more than an invitation to talk to allow their cynicism to dissolve.

Mitchell, the U.S. Middle East envoy, understands that cynicism. "We are well aware that there remains mistrust between the parties, a residue of hostility developed over many decades of conflict... all of which takes a very heavy toll on both societies and their leaders."

But a move forward is still that and with a vested interest in peace on the ground, both sides have little choice but to harbor some hope.

Does everyone agree?


Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic group in charge of Gaza, rejects direct talks. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told CNN: "Until now all these negotiations did not achieve anything. These negotiations will not be accepted by the Palestinian people because it is a new trap for the Palestinians."

The talks will go ahead, but it is important to remember not all Palestinians will be represented.

Even in the event of an historic Israeli-Palestinian deal, President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas still have to form a unity government -- and that has not been possible since Hamas won the election to rule Gaza in 2006 and took full control of the Strip by force in 2007 -- before anything can be signed, sealed and delivered.