Jeremy Bowen
BBC News
September 16, 2010 - 12:00am

With talks now well under way, the Americans are working hard to stop information leaking out of the conference rooms.

The statements that have been released are bland, positive without minimising the problems ahead.

We are told that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are "getting down to business", tackling the tough issues upfront.

Atmospherics are well managed. Mr Netanyahu flew a Palestinian flag when President Abbas came to his official residence in Jerusalem. The Americans conclude that both men want a peace deal.

So does all that mean that this new peace process will work?

Probably not. At the moment the odds are against it.

Most people in the region are very pessimistic, including some who are close to Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu.

Before the Washington summit where the talks were inaugurated one such person told me that it would all be a complete waste of time.

These talks could collapse before they get going properly.

A partial Israeli freeze on building for Jews in the occupied West Bank runs out at the end of this month. The Palestinians say that if the freeze is not renewed they will walk away from the table. The Israelis are sounding more flexible than a week ago, but they are still ruling out an extension to the freeze.

Past experience is not encouraging. Neither side trusts the other.

Negotiations first started almost 20 years ago. All of them have failed, although generally speaking each individual failure left something on which to build next time round.

Israelis and Palestinians are pessimistic because they have had their hopes raised too often, and because there is a very obvious gap between them on the big issues. Will Israel allow the Palestinians to have a capital in Jerusalem? What will Palestinian refugees get? How much land will the Palestinians get for a state?

And what kind of state? Properly sovereign - or with Israel controlling the borders, the airspace, and the water aquifers?

Israel is demanding recognition as a Jewish state. Palestinians point out that around one-fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, not Jews.
Probably, not definitely

Even if they can make a deal, it is doubtful whether they could deliver it. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas both have serious domestic political constraints.

Mr Netanyahu has a coalition government reliant, for now anyway, on parties that are against making concessions to the Palestinians.

Mr Abbas is politically weak. He does not speak for Gaza. It is controlled by Hamas, which says the talks are a trick, and that they would not have come even had they been asked.

I said that the talks would probably fail, as things stand.

Probably, not definitely. In every negotiation here have been positive points that optimists can seize. This one is no different.

The Americans want a deal, badly. President Barack Obama is pushing harder and earlier in his term than his two predecessors.

He appointed his Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell on his second day in office.

Mr Mitchell's favourite rebuke to the pessimists is to recall that during his time as a peace envoy in Northern Ireland, they had 700 days of failure and one of success.

Senator Mitchell is counselling patience. But there is a sense among some Israelis and some Palestinians - and also in the Obama White House - that time is running out.

The secular leadership of the PLO, which has failed so far to deliver independence, can feel the hot breath of political Islam. So can the Americans. Extreme Jewish religious nationalists are also entrenched in some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Some say that Mr Netanyahu, in his second stint as prime minister, wants a peace deal to be his legacy. One highly respected Israeli journalist has suggested that he is becoming an Israeli Gorbachev - put into power to safeguard an empire, only to dismantle it.

Others believe that Mr Netanyahu is more concerned with stopping Iran becoming a nuclear power, even if that means war. This theory says he is only making the right noises about peace with the Palestinians to get closer to Mr Obama for when he needs him on Iran.

We'll see. This process is supposed to produce an agreement in a year.


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