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New Mideast start

Efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians have come to naught so often that any attempt to rekindle the Mideast peace process invites deep and well-justified skepticism. Yet no international problem has festered longer or with greater potential for violence and far-ranging fallout.

So at least a glimmer of optimism is warranted by the gathering in Washington of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. The presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan, the two Arab countries with peace agreements with Israel, added a veneer of multinational support to the talks, overseen by President Obama.

Panoply aside, Netanyahu and Abbas engaged in direct talks, suspended for 20 months, and agreed to meet again at two-week intervals for the next year in an effort to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.

If they can surmount their first hurdle, the moratorium on Israeli settlements, due to expire Sept. 26, they could move on to the "final status" issues -- the fate of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees -- that have bedeviled negotiators since 1979.

While neither leader is in a strong position at home -- Netanyahu heads a right-wing coalition skeptical of making concessions and Abbas is overshadowed by the more militant Hamas, which controls Gaza -- they each have an interest in making a deal.

Netanyahu particularly wants to make nice to bolster Israel's international stature against Iran and its nuclear threat, his prime concern. With his conservative bona fides, he could craft a deal that would gain widespread Israeli support.

Failure would strengthen the forces of radicalism and both know that demographics and economics make the status quo untenable. This new initiative may well founder, but both Netanyahu and Abbas, for now at least, are invested in making progress toward ending the generations-long impasse.


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