Tonight in Washington, face-to-face peace talks between Israel and Palestine will resume for the first time in 20 months - drawing international attention back to the prospects for a two-state solution, the question of a Palestinian right of return, and other contentious issues. Meanwhile, however, another country in the Middle East is grappling with a similarly complex peace process.
Last week, the government in Yemen made its latest attempt to quell persistent violence in the Northern province of Sa'ada. There, conflict between government forces and Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, has been endemic - and since 2004, the province has been in a state of on-and-off civil war.
The government alleges that the Houthis are trying to overthrow the regime and implement Shia religious law. The Houthis have repeatedly denied this accusation, claiming they are defending their branch of Shia Islam - Zaydism.
On Thursday, Yemeni officials and Houthi representatives met in Doha, Qatar, and hammered out a 22-point peace treaty. Among the agreement's stipulations: a pledge to return internally displaced persons to their home villages and provide humanitarian aid to Sa'ada.
But political leaders and policy experts aren't celebrating yet: This agreement is the third in two years, and is an attempt to build on the first two. The first ceasefire was signed in Doha in 2008, and the second in February 2010. Both were unsuccessful in stopping the violence.
Could one work now?
The prospects would seem daunting. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in Arab world according to its GDP (PPP), has an unemployment rate of 40 percent. About 45 percent of its population is under the age of 15. Its economy is now based almost entirely on oil revenue. Analysts are predicting the oil supply will dry up completely by 2017, after an already precipitous decline in recent years. Meanwhile, Yemen is facing an unprecedented water shortage partially due to exponential population growth (it is expected to jump from 24 million to at least 61 million by 2035) and a reliance on unsustainable crops. Sana'a could be the first capital city in the world to run without water.
The government has directed what little resources it has into subduing the separatist insurgent movement in the south, and quelling the Houthis to the north.
Meanwhile, Yemen's weak economy and warring factions have created a haven for al-Qaeda activism, distinct from and unrelated to the Houthi insurgency. As Andrew M. Exum and Richard Fontaine wrote in a November 2009 Center for a New American Security policy brief, "While America may pay little attention to Yemen, al-Qaeda leadership devotes much more: Internet message boards linked to al-Qaeda are encouraging fighters from across the Islamic world to flock to Yemen."
Christopher Boucek, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program, made a similar observation last year: "If left unaddressed, Yemen's problems could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The inability of the Yemeni central government to fully control its territory will create space for violent extremists to regroup and launch attacks against domestic and international targets. "
They are part of AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch that took responsibility for last year's failed Christmas Day bomb plot on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. According to Boucek, al-Qaeda may be congregating in Yemen because of recent counterterrorism measures in Saudi Arabia. CIA analysts are now calling AQAP one of the most significant international threats to U.S. national security.
At best, last week's peace agreement could allow the government to reinvest in fighting AQAP by stopping the resource drain caused by the northern conflict. This agreement is more detailed than the last two, and emphasizes a key element for both sides - the return of Houthi prisoners in exchange for weapons they've seized since 2004. But Boucek is skeptical - and pessimistic that this agreement will bring peace. "How are you going to demobilize the Houthis [and] confiscate their weapons?" he asks. "I don't know how that's going to happen."
And increasing U.S. involvement in the region has only exacerbated tensions. Yemenis already blame the government for their resource shortages, and now they are holding it responsible for the escalating U.S. surveillance presence since last December: The CIA has stationed armed Predator drones to help in the fight against al-Qaeda operatives. This antipathy toward the government has helped embolden and legitimize the insurgency.
Boucek suggests that the end to the bloody, complicated and debilitating conflict may come down to a simple question of economics. "Ultimately, the government can't continue to fight this war because it's destroying the Yemeni economy," he says. "It's astonishing how much money they are burning through in this conflict. This war is something they cannot afford to fight."