Gwen’s Take: Middle East Peace Talks Then and Now

BY Gwen Ifill  September 3, 2010 at 11:30 AM EST

“A great moment of opportunity,” she said.

“There’s a lot of skepticism out there,” he said. “But I think there is ground to be hopeful.”

She was Madeleine Albright, a Democrat and former secretary of state. He was Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser in George W. Bush’s second term. On the PBS NewsHour this week, they were in lockstep on one of the most stubbornly contentious conflicts of our time: Middle East peace.

After watching and covering the on-again, off-again effort to find middle ground between Israelis and Palestinians for decades, it is not completely crazy to be skeptical of the prospects for actual peace.

I was one of the hundreds standing on the White House south lawn on Sept. 13, 1993, when President Clinton nudged Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat into a tentative handshake to seal the Oslo Accords. You could feel the history in the air.

Two years later, the same two men shook hands once again, this time under the chandeliers in the White House East Room. They’d amended the deal they were signing just minutes before in pen and ink. Once again there was applause.

But less than two months later, Rabin was assassinated, sending the peace talks back onto their regrettably familiar cycle of diplomatic frustration. From Camp David to Annapolis; from Aqaba to Madrid to Sharm el-Sheik, the peace talks have bounced to and fro across the Atlantic.

The arguments vary only a little – two-state solutions, Palestinian right of return, settlements in Gaza, dividing Jerusalem.

But efforts at Middle East peace do seem to be something that makes allies of normally warring parties in this country at least. As Albright and Hadley demonstrated on the NewsHour, American presidents and their lieutenants seem unable to turn away from the prospect for peace — no matter which party they swear allegiance to.

Still, it is Mr. Obama — like so many chief executives before him — who must, in Albright’s words, be “the closer.”

“In the end of the day,” Hadley agreed, “Middle East peace is presidential business.” Good thing the president does not have anything else on his plate these days.

But he may have taken some heart in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week. “I see in you a partner for peace,” the Israeli leader said. “Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict.”

It’s what Yasser Arafat called “the peace of the brave.” Arafat, who died in 2004, said that in 1995.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Friday’s Washington Week roundtable will assess how the Obama administration is trying to “turn the page” from Iraq to a slew of other domestic and foreign policy issues.