Ian Black
The Guardian
September 1, 2010 - 12:00am

No previous round of Middle East peace negotiations has begun with such rock-bottom expectations as the one being launched in Washington tonight.

Neither side expects to be able to reach an agreement unless the US tries to impose one. And few believe that if Barack Obama does attempt that, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will be able to live with it – the Israeli premier because of his fractious rightwing coalition and the Palestinian president because of Hamas opposition and wider despair over years of peace "process" without change.

"Both sides prefer to continue the existing situation as long as they do not have to pay the costs that an agreement requires," argued Nahum Barnea, the Israeli commentator. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, was a tad more diplomatic. "We are hoping talks will succeed," he said, "but we are all very pessimistic about the viability of the peace process because of past experience."

Still, convention – and deference to the US host – requires a polite suspension of belief. It was the same when George Bush convened the Annapolis conference in 2007 in a belated attempt to make up for ignoring the Israel-Palestine conflict for so long after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Scepticism was profound then too – even though everyone, including a Syrian minister, turned up for the group photographs at the launch of another process that predictably led nowhere slowly.

On the face of it, little has changed since. The core issues of the conflict remain the same: West Bank settlements, the future of Jerusalem, final borders, Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state and the Palestinians' for their "right to return."

Overall, though, the situation is worse. Last year's Gaza war, with its 1,400 Palestinian dead, was a deadly reminder of the cost of impasse. Israel has seen its international position further eroded, while Hamas, which has more faith in resistance than negotiations, remains entrenched in power. Its boast of more "heroic operations" to come after Tuesday's killing of four Israeli settlers near Hebron is grimly credible.

Less tangibly, few on both sides believe that an agreement to end the conflict is possible. Increasingly the talk is of the death of the two-state solution – still the only workable one. Trust, always in short supply, is virtually non-existent. Israelis routinely complain about Palestinian incitement, but the latest rhetorical flourish came from an ageing rabbi who said he was praying for a plague on Abbas.

Israelis in the centre and on the right believe that military superiority and a booming economy mean the conflict can be managed indefinitely without being resolved. Liberals counter that time is running out: that population growth among the country's Palestinian minority, and in the occupied territories, will mean an end to a Jewish majority and the emergence of a de facto apartheid state.

Palestinians who have not yet despaired seem to think that a peace agreement will be imposed by the US and an international community, including the European Union, that is fast losing patience with Israel.

Negotiations that fail clearly carry risks. The breakdown of the Camp David talks in 2000 was followed by the second intifada – with disastrous consequences for any hopes of a negotiated peace. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza could easily become embroiled in a new war, especially if Israel were to ignore the US and attack Iran's nuclear sites.

It would be only marginally short of miraculous to reach agreement against such a gloomy backdrop. Still, given the high stakes, the negotiations are more likely to limp along than to collapse outright. In time, the Palestinians will be tempted to seek – and probably win – wide international recognition of a state within the 1967 borders. But that will still not bring an end to the conflict or agreement with Israel.


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