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Israeli and Palestinian officials are scheduled to meet in Washington on Monday to talk about breaking a five-year deadlock over a peace process for the Middle East.
Yesterday, Israeli cabinet ministers approved the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry to get the process started again.
Newsweek’s Middle East editor Christopher Dickey writes in a piece called “In Search of the Obama Doctrine” that “during desperately dangerous times, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the last best chance for the U.S. to influence events in the region.”
Given the turmoil in the region, Dickey says the conflict has been relegated to a smaller role in the Middle East.
“If you’re going to build peace, you have to start somewhere in the Middle East, and I think that actually, ironically, as difficult as it is, Israel and Palestine are the places to start,” Dickey said. “It isn’t going to solve the region’s problems, but it will solve a huge problem.”
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HOBSON: But first, Israeli and Palestinian officials are getting ready to try again to end their stalemate over the peace process in the Middle East. Tonight's meeting is in Washington. It's supposed to jumpstart the process after years of failed attempts to reach some sort of agreement. Israel's cabinet set the stage for the resumption of talks yesterday by deciding to free more than 100 Palestinian prisoners; that's part of an agreement brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month to bring both sides back to the table.
Christopher Dickey is Middle East regional editor for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He joins us from the BBC studios in Paris to talk about all of this. Chris, welcome.
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: My pleasure.
HOBSON: How significant do you think it is that these prisoners are going to be released, that the Israelis have decided to release some 104 Palestinian prisoners?
DICKEY: Well, that is what used to be called a confidence-building measure in diplomatic parlance in the Middle East. Right now it's not really being called anything because Secretary of State Kerry is trying to keep virtually everything that can be kept under wraps under wraps, because he doesn't want this all played out in the Israeli and American and European and world press in such a way that his initiative is killed before it is even born.
But it is an important move. This is something obviously that can't be kept secret. The Israelis released these prisoners. I'm sure that there is some reciprocal action that the Palestinians will carry out. I don't know exactly what it is. But all of that is part of the process of trying to build confidence on both sides that they are moving forward.
HOBSON: You think that does enough to built confidence among Palestinians that it would counteract the, I'm sure, upset feelings in Israel about that release?
DICKEY: Yeah, I think it will be helpful. People in Israel will be upset about it, but it's a pretty conservative government, and if the cabinet in Israel moves forward on an issue like this, that is a real vote of commitment to some kind of peace process. We don't know exactly what that peace process is, but to try to move forward.
HOBSON: How much power does Mahmoud Abbas have on the Palestinian side? He is not trusted by Hamas, which is rejecting these new talks.
DICKEY: Well, look, Mahmoud Abbas is not a very strong leader, never has been. He represents the old guard of the corrupt Palestinian leadership whose record actually helped Hamas come to power in Gaza. There still is no clear picture of how Hamas could be brought in to these peace talks, how Gaza could be brought into these peace talks.
But obviously if there is a way for Abbas, for Abu Mazen, to make a deal that moves clearly toward the classic model of a two-state solution, then that will put a lot of pressure on Hamas, and at the same time, I understand from various people I talk to, that there will be once again an effort to really, really fund the development of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank so that people feel that they have a stake in this future that is peace.
You know, it's all very tentative, and to a certain extent we've seen it all before. But Kerry is a wise politician and a wise diplomat, and there is a sense in the Obama administration that this their last best chance they have to do something sensible in the Middle East when everything else is just falling apart.
HOBSON: And what would a deal mean for the rest of the region, which is in a state of total upheaval right now?
DICKEY: Well, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, it's sort of the mantra of anger that exists in the Middle East and in fact in the broader Muslim world. A lot of things have happened since early 2011 that have made the Palestinian-Israeli peace process seem less relevant. I mean there is a huge upheaval in an enormous and powerful country like Egypt, the disintegration of Syria. These are huge problems.
And solving the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not going to solve those problems, but it is going to take one huge problem off the table, and in a Middle East that looks like this Middle East, that's no small thing. Otherwise you basically say, you know, we'll have Syria dying, we'll have coup and chaos in Egypt, we have Tunisia headed toward the drain, you have Yemen is drones. You have - you know, it's all this huge mess, and then to add to that, Palestine equals Hamas, and Israel equals apartheid, I mean that's a hell of a legacy.
That's something that this administration doesn't want and that in fact Americans should understand we as a nation don't want. If you're going to build peace, you have to start somewhere in the Middle East, and I think that actually, ironically, as difficult as it is, Israel and Palestine are the places to start.
HOBSON: Christopher Dickey is Middle East editor for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, speaking to us from Paris. Chris, thank you so much.
DICKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.