Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama

"Let's try - again - to be friends."

The dead horse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being flogged again. I will give it one more lash, and then I’ll never bother to write about it again because the same, old things keep coming up.

The first direct talks between the leaders of Israel and (at least half of) the Palestinian people in nearly two years have started today in Washington DC under the auspices of President Obama. Since the last ones broke down in December 2008, just before an Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, both Israel and America have changed leaders (although Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been PM before). The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is the sole survivor. There are new faces, but already many predict the same, old outcome, in that the leaders will meet, talk, disagree and part their own ways, each claiming to have offered as much as they could and blaming the other side’s unwillingness to compromise.

The main issue is that old problems remained unsolved. The one mutually agreed-to principle to a lasting peace – that the disputed land will eventually be split between Israel and Palestine – was formally accepted by both sides only in 2007, even though the idea has been around for decades and was probably the most obvious solution. At that kind of pace, when will all the other issues be settled? And the issues are many, with profound disagreements on each of them. Where should the borders be? What to do with Jerusalem? What about the Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Should Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes? When can Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails be released? The list is long. Only recently US-Israeli relations were shaken over the Israeli refusal to freeze settlement-building in the West Bank, much to the chagrin of Obama and Abbas. Netanyahu’s Likud party is currently in coalition with Israel’s right-wing nationalists. If you think getting some Tories to like the idea of Europe as being difficult, think how challenging it must be for Netanyahu to get his coalition partners to agree to any concession.

To compound issues even further, the biggest thorn in the peace negotiations, namely the presence of Hamas as a force to be reckoned with in Gaza, is unlikely to go away. No matter how desperately the west, Israel and Fatah (Abbas’ party) want to ignore the group, which ousted Fatah from Gaza after the Palestinian general elections in 2006, it is here to stay. No official engagement with Hamas has to date been made by the other parties, but as long as Hamas is not somehow involved, no comprehensive peace will ensue. But getting Hamas officially involved without the group acceding to Israel’s demands for recognition would simply be impossible. On the other hand, getting Hamas to recognise what Israel demands without some sort of major conciliatory gesture by Israel is also out of the question. Thus, so far, the talks seem to be heading to another dead end.

Still, the talks have only just begun, and there is everything to play for. If Netanyahu and Abbas can somehow manage to defy all odds and come up with anything resembling a longer-term peace plan, the cost of Hamas holding out will be increased. Gazans may not settle for second-rate status if their neighbours in the West Bank are due to be better off because of a peace deal with Israel. But that is a big “if”, and “all” odds is still quite a lot. If something impressive does turn up, I may be enticed to write another article on the subject.