Can talks bring peace at last to Middle East ?
In one respect, at least, the coming round of Middle East peace talks breaks new ground.
Grand White House dinners with Arab and Israeli leaders as the principal guests have usually been held to celebrate some negotiating achievement like the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Next week's, by contrast. will take place not at the end but at the beginning of the new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Cynics – and there are plenty of those among Israelis and Palestinians at present – might be forgiven for wondering not only whether such a gathering has any purpose beyond US domestic politics, but also whether it will represent the high water mark of the negotiations it is supposed to launch.
In all the dismal history of attempts to solve the conflict during 43 years of Israeli occupation, expectations have rarely been lower than they are now. An Israeli Prime Minister, whose first term of office helped to neuter the Oslo accords, is riding high at the head of a stable right-wing government, several of whose powerful supporters are opposed to the two-state solution the talks are intended to bring into being.
A Palestinian leader presiding over a politically and territorially split political entity enters the talks from a position of notorious weakness; the clever wording of the international documents which, on Friday, ushered the talks into being, cannot conceal the fact that Mahmoud Abbas has been forced to climb down from the conditions he wanted imposed before the talks began. And that weakness will make it all the more difficult for him to extract the absolute minimum he would need to reach a remotely saleable agreement with Benjmain Netanyahu.
Nor is Mr Netanyahu likely to play softball. Yesterday, he highlighted two points beyond the familiar and perennially difficult "core" topics of Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The first is his insistence – new in that it was not even on the table during the talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat which broke down at Camp David in 2000 – on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state", and the second is his heavy emphasis on the priority for the negotiations of "real and sustainable security arrangements..."
The first demand remains extremely difficult even for the moderate Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, and not only because it calls into question the status of Israel's Arab minority. It is also perceived as requiring Palestinians not only to recognise Israel and its right to live within secure borders, and accept that a Palestinian state will occupy no more than 22 percent of pre-1967 Palestine (all of which the present leadership in Ramallah has long ago done), but also, in the words the Palestinian intellectual Ahmed Khalidi, in effect "to become Zionists" by legitimising the nakba, or "disaster", in which hundreds of thousands of refugees fled or were forced from their homes in 1948. Mr Khalidi argued that the Palestinians fully accepted that any solution to the refugee problem would have to be negotiated but that they could not negate a "broader historical injustice that is in need of acknowledgement, restitution and compensation".
On security, Mr Netanyahu principally has in mind the eastern border of what, if there was agreement, would be the Palestinian state. Originally, Israel assumed that, in any withdrawal from the West Bank, its troops would remain along the Jordan Valley. The peace treaty with Jordan made that somewhat less of a priority and at Camp David, President Bill Clinton envisaged an international force with a "small Israeli presence" under its supervision for another 36 months.
Mr Netanyahu is, however, concerned about unpredictable regional threats including, but also going much wider than, the imports by Palestinian militants of weapons through a Jordan that might in the future be less stable than it is now.
Israel's right to security is unimpeachable but a review of the issue by James Jones, now President Obama's National Security Adviser, proposed an international force, and Palestinians would find it hard to accept any indefinite Israeli presence along the eastern border of a new state.
Yet it is actually possible to construct an optimistic scenario. It may have been mere spin, but US officials have repeatedly informed Arab interlocutors in recent weeks that the Israeli Prime Minister told the US President something (what is not specified) that led Mr Obama to redouble his efforts to persuade Abbas that now was a propitious time for talks. Secondly, hard as it is to envisage Netanyahu, of all Israeli politicians, withdrawing from the West Bank, there is a seductive view that on the "Nixon recognises Red China" principle only the Israeli right can end the conflict.
Finally, there is the real world effect of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's formidable preparations for statehood – including but not only in relation to security. The deal which any negotiations will have to strike, especially on refugees, can almost certainly only be saleable to Palestinians if it results in the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state – and not some distant prospect of one, as the Olmert-Abbas talks on a "shelf agreement" envisaged. And for that the West Bank Palestinian leadership is far readier than it has ever been.
But, of course, it is on Netanyahu that the outcome will principally depend. With Palestinian negotiators saying they will pull out of the talks if the partial settlement freeze ends on 26 September, the first crucial test will be whether he extends it, as he is surely politically strong enough to do. But beyond that the question is whether he remains, as many Bibi-watchers believe, the opportunistic rightist of old or whether he has decided that he wants a real place in history.
Israel's failing has too often been that, when there is conflict, you cannot make peace because it would be a surrender to "terror" and when, as now (at least in the West Bank) violence is at a record low, there is no need. Nothing is impossible; but it still takes a heroic leap of the imagination to believe that the Israeli Prime Minister will prefer peace to mere quiet.