Sadly, for both sides, no change beats risk of talks that could fail

By Shmuel Rosner, September 2, 2010

The most recent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion tells the whole story.

No, most Palestinians do not think "direct talks" are a good idea. They do not see how Special Envoy George Mitchell's frequent visits make peace more likely. And they also do not believe that President Barack Obama is "in a position to establish a Palestinian state". In fact, 65.8 per cent of West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip Palestinians think he is not.

However, they do believe that the West Bank government of Salam Fayyad is doing quite well. Corruption is down, security improved, and only a quarter of all Palestinians define the economic situation as "bad". They worry mostly about "jobs / money" (43.5 per cent), "health" (15.8 per cent), "the future" (30 per cent) - but not so much about "security" (10.6 per cent).

This means that for many of them, risking a deterioration in the security situation is more worrisome than the current situation continuing. This means that they see life as most normal populations - the people who do not live under occupation - do. It means they see only little they can gain from the attempt to reignite the peace-process talks - and a lot to lose.

Many Israelis probably feel quite similarly. They have little hope that a breakthrough is on the cards in this round, and little confidence in the intentions and the abilities of Mr Obama.

They know that "compromise" entails domestic battles, and have seen the result of withdrawal in Lebanon and Gaza. They are puzzled at the international community's insistence on dealing with this matter rather than with more urgent, threats to stability and peace (Iran). And they too see a lot to lose and very little to gain from talks.

Of course, the people surrounding President Obama are not dumb. They also know that both parties are reluctant, that the gaps are wide, politics impossible to overcome, that the leaders are not quite ready to lead.

On the other hand, they see no other choice. The current situation - so they have repeatedly stated - is "unsustainable". So they make the leap despite the risks.

If all fails, maybe not much will change: there will be indirect talks about the beginning of talks, some bickering, some cooperation "on the ground".

This is the optimistic scenario. There is also a more pessimistic possibility. And in a region in which pessimism is the better side of reality, such a scenario must be carefully pondered. In fact, there is not much to say about this scenario. "Been there, done that" says it all. Failure tends to lead to frustration, frustration to extremist ideas, and extremism to violence.

When one enters negotiations with no conceivable chance for success, one is consciously willing to risk another eruption of violence. Will "direct talks" justify such risk? Palestinians and Israelis doubt it - but the Americans do not.

On the other hand, it is not the Americans who will really suffer. This, of course, does not mean that their analysis is wrong, just that they need to be extra careful about starting talks.

Were they careful enough? I am not sure. Is their case convincing? I cannot see how. Not that is matters. Negotiations have started, the deed is done.

Shmuel Rosner blogs at Rosner's Domain

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010