Analysis: Peace talks? More like high-risk pregnancy

Hillary Clinton pushing the sides together at Sharm this week

Hillary Clinton pushing the sides together at Sharm this week

Do not buy into the hype being created by the Americans about the first round of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Wednesday that the sides have begun discussing the "core issues", but even if that is technically true, talking about the issues is a long way from any agreement.

This is not just good old American optimism. The Obama administration is being forced to do everything to save face as it is currently investing an inordinate amount of time in the diplomatic process. The summit two weeks ago in Washington; Ms Clinton's visit to the region; and, probably, yet more meetings between Binyamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Barack Obama early next week in Washington - there has not been this level of involvement since the heady days of the Clinton administration.

At the same time, the Americans are doing everything to keep the "moderate" Arab states on board, supporting Mr Abbas's flagging will. Hosni Mubarak has been appointed the godfather of the process and it is no coincidence that the administration chose this week to announce a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

Secretary Clinton has to appear upbeat. If not, what is she wasting her time on?

The talks are high-risk pregnancy, currently at the stage of conception. Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu both know that and, therefore, are giving nothing away until they are certain that it has taken root. We will know whether the foetus survives at the end of the month, if some kind of formula is reached which will allow the talks to carry on despite Israel's insistence that it will not extend the settlement freeze and the Palestinian threat that even one house built on the West Bank will cause them to walk out.

This time, the Americans are trying to apply just the right amount of pressure on either side. They have said that they think Israel should carry on the building freeze but refrained from making even veiled threats in that direction. They are also trying to gently urge the Palestinians, with the help of the Egyptians, not to use the building as an excuse to back out. But even if that bridge is crossed safely, there are more crisis points up the road. There is a limit to just how long the Americans can carry on acting as the life-support system. The mid-term elections will soon demand almost all their attention and could dramatically affect the Obama team's influence. Mr Netanyahu's right-wing allies and the settlers will certainly try to derail the talks if he agrees to any new settlement limitations.

And, of course, there is Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The rocket launches from Gaza have increased in recent days and that is no coincidence, but the real wild-card would be a spectacular terror attack, within Israel abroad. That is when the American resolve to keep the sides at the table and see this pregnancy through will really be tested.

    Last updated: 12:04pm, September 16 2010