The Financial Times
May 3, 2010 - 12:00am

Here we go again. Welcome back to the Middle East peace process, a tortured charade that long ago turned into pure process and thereby set a sure course for the rocks. With indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians now likely to resume, is there any reason to think much has changed?

Israel is ruled by its most right-wing government, under Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinians, weak and divided, are unwilling to enter negotiations unless Israel stops building settlements on their land, which Mr Netanyahu refuses to do. But something does look to have changed – in the US.

President Barack Obama realises this is the last opportunity to resolve the conflict peacefully – with an Israel secure within recognised frontiers, and an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital – before it passes the point of no return. He believes, moreover, it is in the US national and strategic interest to lance this boil.

In the American view, Mr Netanyahu’s reckless irredentism is driving a coach and horses through Mr Obama’s wider agenda in the region – to drain off the poison in the relationship between the west and Islam – and, the US military now believes, Israeli intransigence is putting American lives at risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr Netanyahu strained Israel’s vital alliance with the US when, last month, he chose the arrival of Joe Biden, the US vice-president, to unveil a new round of building in occupied Arab east Jerusalem. Since then, three things have happened. Mr Netanyahu seems to have promised a pause in Israeli colonisation. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has dropped his insistence on an overt settlements freeze as a condition for talks. And the US appears to have assured the Palestinians it will not use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel in the event of any new provocation.

Assuming the talks start, they may still go nowhere. But breakthroughs in the Middle East happen when the US feels its national interest is in play, rather then when it pretends to be a dispassionate arbiter. When deadlock comes, as it inevitably will, Mr Obama must be ready to place a US plan before the Security Council. That should be based on the (Bill) Clinton Parameters of 2000, and the Arab peace plan of 2002.

The latter has been endorsed by all 22 Arab League states, all 57 members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (including Iran), and even Hamas, in the 2007 Mecca accord. It offers Israel legitimacy within its 1967 borders, but the offer will evaporate once its author, the elderly King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, leaves the scene.

If these talks go ahead, it will be because Mr Obama has willed it. To have any chance of success, he will need to insist on the outcome.


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