Analysis: No point to Israel-Palestine proximity talks

American envoy George Mitchell meets the Israeli foreign minister in Jerusalem.

American envoy George Mitchell meets the Israeli foreign minister in Jerusalem.

In a week's time, American negotiator George Mitchell will return to Jerusalem, meet Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for a couple of hours, and then hop into his car for the short drive to Ramallah and a meeting of similar length with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Everything will be as it has been so many times over the last year, with one difference: this time the meetings will be called "proximity talks".

The Obama administration will take credit for finally, after over a year, bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table - only there will be two tables. Even the original plan, that the proximity talks should have the two sides sitting in separate rooms in the same building, has been abandoned. Mr Mitchell's convoy will continue to shuttle between the two cities.

So what has been achieved? Well, if up until now all the talk was over the terms under which the sides would agree to resume negotiations, this will be the first, very tentative, round of actual negotiations.

But what will they be negotiating? Israel has received assurances that at this stage, the core issues, especially the future of Jerusalem, will not be on the table. On the other hand, the Palestinians have been assured that a draft agreement on these issues will be prepared before the start of direct talks.

And when will those talks take place? Israel wants them to start as soon as possible, while the Palestinians still have a long list of conditions before they are prepared to go that further step.

The American plans are shrouded in secrecy. Will they try to use the proximity talks to push the sides forward to more direct and purposeful meetings? Or are they, as many suspect, simply trying to elicit both sides' positions and in a few months present them with the Obama Peace Plan?

The Palestinians finally agreed to the talks last weekend, three days after they were officially supposed to have begun, without receiving a public commitment from the Israeli government to freeze all settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. On the other hand, Israel has privately given assurances to the Americans that for now there will be no new building in east Jerusalem. It is not only administration officials who are saying this, even Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Atias confirmed last week that effectively there is no building and will not be any for the duration of the talks.

The right-wing politicians attacked the freeze, Mr Netanyahu denied such a move had ever been decided and it was all politics as usual.

So what hope is there for the proximity talks? It is much too early to speak of an end result. The real question is which side will find an excuse to pull out first.

The Israeli government may be serious about temporarily freezing building in east Jerusalem but the contrarian municipal authorities or the Interior Ministry's planning commissions may still spring a surprise. A provocative act of violence by settlers or one of the Palestinian organisations could make talks impossible. And then there is the end of the 10-month building freeze in October. A decision by Mr Netanyahu to resume building in the West Bank will certainly blow up the talks. But an extension of the freeze could lead to a mini-revolt within Likud and the coalition.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians believe that the other side wants to reach an agreement. They could both be right, and they have already prepared excuses and accusations for an almost inevitable breakdown in the talks. The Americans have warned both sides that if that happens, they will pull no punches in publicly blaming whoever they see as the culprit.

The administration does not want to lose its only achievement so far in the Middle East, even if this is only talks for talks' sake.

    Last updated: 2:05pm, May 13 2010