Middle East peace process: High-level talks but with low expectations

On the ground, there is little agreement over the way forward

The two old friends were both middle-aged, both barbers, and both sons of Palestinian refugee parents who were forced to flee the same village outside Jaffa in the war of 1948. Each had an entirely different take yesterday on this week's high-profile start to the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Saad Sholi, 45, the owner of the barber's shop, is a self-confessed political junkie who avidly watched the proceedings in Washington, switching between the al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite TV channels. He was not wildly optimistic about the outcome.

"We hope," he said laconically.

But he was prepared – for now – to give the parties the benefit of the doubt. "Abu Mazen [aka the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] is the right man for this stage," he said. "He is trying to save what is left to be saved." Clearly knowledgeable about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on securing the Jordan Valley in any deal, he was even prepared to grant an Israeli military presence on what would be the eastern border of the putative Palestinian state – provided it was deployed "jointly" with an Arab or international force.

Ruefully pragmatic in accepting that Israel would not allow refugees to return in any quantity to Israel, he declared: "They would like to get rid of the 1948 Palestinians [Arabs living in Israel] as it is; they are not going to bring in more people. But Jerusalem is what is important for me. If they agree to a state without the [Jewish West Bank] settlements and East Jerusalem as the capital, then I will accept it."

But his employee Walid Habash, 56, was scornful of any hopes for the talks. "Netanyahu will not give something serious to the Palestinians," he said. "He just wants to quieten things down because of Iran. Iran is their priority. They are preoccupied by the threat from outside. This is morphine."

We were in Balata, the densely populated West Bank refugee camp which was the most scarred during the second intifada. It was a stronghold of Fatah's military wing that suffered daily and nightly raids by the Israeli military and regular, and frequently deadly, gun battles during the worst of the fighting. Today it is a neighbourhood where expectations of the fresh negotiating effort– made only possible by the irresistible pressure applied to Mr Abbas by the US to take part in the direct talks which he had long rejected – remain as low as they do among Palestinians and Israelis in general.

One reason for that is a widespread awareness that for all the impressive staging by the Obama administration of the two days of largely ceremonial diplomacy, any real work in closing the daunting gaps between the two sides, still lies in the future.

"As far as I can see the prospects are the same as they were before the conference in Washington," said one of Israel's leading analysts, Yossi Alpher. "The only substance we know is that the parties have agreed to meet again [on 14 and 15 September, probably in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh]."

While Mr Netanyahu "said the right things", he had not yet "been put to the test", Mr Abbas was still presiding over a split Palestinian polity, and the US was increasingly "preoccupied with the economy and the coming elections". The only "actor" to make its presence truly felt so far was Hamas—with its drive-by shooting of four settlers on Tuesday in what some believe could be the first move in a concerted effort to undermine a political process in which it has no part.

The next meeting is likely to be dominated by an obstacle still standing in the way of the talks continuing at all. Though he is bound to come under US pressure to modify his stance, Mr Abbas has threatened to pull out if the partial freeze on settlement construction ends – as Mr Netanyhau has so far indicated it will – on 26 September. Beyond that looms the much larger question of whether the Israeli Prime Minister has made the break with his ideological past necessary to make the agreement he insists he wants.

"I just don't know the answer," said Alpher. "I'm not sure he knows himself." The analyst, a former senior Mossad figure who runs a joint Israeli-Palestinian website, bitterlemons.org, says he believes the talks would be greatly assisted if they took more actively into account the two-year reform programme devised by the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to prepare a Palestinian state by 2011.

Some Palestinians believe this could lead to endorsement of an independent state by the UN Security Council, even if complete agreement had not been reached with Israel on every issue. Such a move, believes Alpher, could allow two of the most radioactive topics, refugees and sovereignty over the holy sites of Jerusalem to be left to a later day.

Curiously there is a faint echo of this view from a very different quarter. One of Balata's most famous residents is Hussam Khader, a leading Fatah activist who was freed last years after serving seven years in Israeli gaols. He has been a frequently outspoken critic of both Yasser Arafat and what he sees as the present weak and disunited leadership, and was one of the few Palestinian politicians to argue with Abu Mazen that he should enter direct talks.

Mr Khader said yesterday that Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, should be dropped in favour of bringing Mr Fayyad –who is not in Fatah--directly into the negotiating team. "Saeb Erekat has achieved nothing in 18 years but Salam Fayyad is the one Palestinian leader who has produced a plan and then implemented it."

Moreover Mr Khader would also like to see the negotiations produce an outcome in stages, beginning with giving the Palestinian Authority true "self determination" and real control over both the West Bank Area A – the Palestinian cities, over which it has some jurisdiction – and the more rural Areas B, where its writ is even more severely limited, and C, the large swathe of the West Bank where it has none at all. Then the settlements would be removed. Only after this would a full agreement on all the other issues be reached.

If these goals sound modest, there is a more militant corollary. For Mr Khader believes that if the talks fail, a real return to "armed uprising" will be necessary – not by suicide bombings and attacks inside Israel, which he has always opposed, but on settlers and soldiers in occupied territory, which he regards as legitimate. He was strongly opposed to Hamas's lethal attack last week – but on the grounds that it was simply an attempt to undermine the political process. "The Palestinians will accept whatever gives them their rights," he insists, "whether it is negotiations or armed resistance."

Among younger Palestinians, the signals on this were mixed in Nablus yesterday. "I agree with Abu Mazen negotiating," said Omar Odeh, 24, who lost an arm as a four-year-old after picking up an Israeli grenade during the first intifada in 1991. "But if it fails we should have a peaceful uprising, with stones and not with guns." His friend Bashir Abu Antar, 20, added "We don't want another intifada."

But for another victim of armed conflict, Abdel Ab Eishe, 22, who says he cannot work because of the two Israeli gunshot wounds he suffered at the age of 12, there was no alternative to violence. "We should not be negotiating while the settlements are being built," he said. "The talks will get nowhere. We need a third intifada."

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