The Guardian (Editorial)
April 26, 2010 - 12:00am

Peace talks in the Middle East could be about to resume this week after a gap of 16 months. The optimism, if such a concept applies to this moribund lifeform, is contained in hints last week that Palestinian negotiators were considering inducements to start talking: the release of 1,000 prisoners, the lifting of some roadblocks, the easing of the Gaza blockade. The Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem, and his partial freeze on construction in the West Bank is anyway due to expire, so the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will not talk directly with him. After two decades which saw meetings between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the fact that a Palestinian leader universally deemed to be more pliant than his predecessor can only engage in indirect talks shows how deadlocked the conflict has become.

Former true believers in the peace process are renouncing their faith. Aaron Miller, an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations who served six US secretaries of state, is one of them. Arguing against many of the memos he penned to past political masters (after the Wye River accords which were never implemented, he declared the move toward peace was irreversible), Mr Miller now questions whether the conflict is capable of a negotiated solution and if it isn't, whether it should continue to be regarded as central to the stability of the region. There are ample grounds for thinking that neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Abbas can negotiate a solution, one because he won't and the other because he can't.

In his refusal to consider the core issues – East Jerusalem, and the right of return, being just two on which no one could imagine Mr Netanyahu conducting any meaningful negotiations – the Israeli premier is doing those Palestinians who have renounced violence a favour. Sooner or later they are going to say that as Israel reneges on previous agreements - Camp David, the road map, Annapolis - they are better off not negotiating at all. Mr Abbas came close to this yesterday when he urged President Barack Obama to impose a solution. This has a certain logic to it. Hints at how close Mr Abbas and Ehud Olmert had got, the last time there were direct talks between the two sides, left the impression that the solution is there to be grasped and the script already written, if only the actors could be found to speak the words. The row over building in East Jerusalem has dispelled that illusion. The solution is not there. After 17 years of intermittent negotiation but continuous settlement in the West Bank, there is zero trust between the two sides.

So what will the proximity talks be about if they go ahead this week? It will not be the first time that Mr Netanyahu has miscalculated US politics, but he could be thinking that if only he strings this out to November when he hopes the Republicans will gain control of the House of Representatives, then the pressure will be off him. He will have defanged the Democratic president. Mr Obama could just as easily think that the harder he pushes, the greater the chance of forcing Ehud Barak to leave the coalition. Mr Barak has said it is in Israel's interest to build a Palestinian state.

Either way Mr Obama could be clearing away any last hope in the viability of the peace process, before coming up with his own plan. That would be based on the guidelines for a permanent status agreement which were offered by Bill Clinton in 2000, known as the Clinton Parameters. It would then be endorsed by the EU, UN and Russia, who would then have to implement it. Having declared the solution of the conflict vital to US interests, Mr Obama can hardly walk away. Mr Netanyahu would kick and scream against an imposed plan, but that is the consequence of rejecting lesser demands now.


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