The Palestinians were last night preparing to walk away from talks with Israel aimed at reviving peace negotiations as international mediators frantically shuttled between Ramallah and Jerusalem in an attempt to keep the peace process alive.
Palestinian representatives believe that negotiations have run their course as a deadline for both sides to present proposals on borders and security expires today. Israel, which has criticised the deadline as "artificial," said talks should continue.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, said yesterday that the talks aimed at reviving top-level negotiations had ended without progress. "If we determine the borders it is possible to return to negotiations, but the Israelis don't want to determine the borders," he said.
While mounting international pressure may yet persuade Mr Abbas to keep talking, the Palestinians are increasingly convinced that Israel's hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is unwilling to make the compromises necessary for a two-state solution.
The Palestinians want Israel to accept the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, and halt Jewish settlement construction – deemed illegal in international law – in the occupied West Bank, the acceleration of which has convinced many that a two-state solution is moving out of reach. On both counts, Israel's right-wing government has refused to yield.
Reflecting the mood in the Palestinian camp, one official said: "For us, it's over... Israel chose to [promote] settlements over peace". Previously, Mr Abbas has warned that he would employ "other measures" to isolate Israel if the talks fail. It is thought that this could include reviving a UN statehood bid and asking the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes during the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza strip in 2008.
The Quartet of Middle East peacemakers, comprising the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, which is represented by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in October that both sides should present proposals and wrap up exploratory talks within three months, or by 26 January. Israel has refused to do so, claiming that it has until April.
Low-key meetings, mediated by Jordan, were launched with little fanfare at the beginning of January in a last-ditch attempt to bring the two sides together.
Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief on a visit to the region, said yesterday "we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations".
Israeli officials have rejected the notion that they are responsible for the looming break-off in talks, arguing that the Palestinians had fixed on an "artificial date" to create an "artificial crisis".
"They would be making a mistake if they are looking for excuses to leave the table," an Israeli official said. "Walking away...is not going to solve anything."
But some Israeli analysts say responsibility lies primarily with Mr Netanyahu's administration, which is seen as loath to make tough political compromises in the absence of compelling external or domestic pressures.
The last top-level talks collapsed in September 2010 following another row over settlements. In an effort to break the deadlock and move the conflict into the international realm, Mr Abbas launched a doomed statehood bid at the UN a year later, drawing Israeli fury which prompted a range of punitive measures.
There has been lukewarm international support for Mr Abbas's UN bid, but some are calling for a new approach to resolve the conflict. "The Quartet has failed," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week. "Let's stop kidding ourselves. We have to widen the circle of negotiations and involve everybody who can help resolve the conflict."