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If these peace talks fail, Israel will be the loser

Failure to change the status quo could have disastrous consequences

Egypt may be descending into chaos, but here’s the good news from the Middle East: nine months from now the Israel-Palestine conflict will be over for good.

That's what the schedule says, at least. But as Israeli and Palestinian representatives meet in Washington today for their first face-to-face peace talks in five years, the reality is that there is a vanishingly small chance these negotiations will lead to peace. In fact, even calling them “negotiations” may be misleading. Israel’s aim is to drag the Palestinians to the table on a leash, offer them terms of surrender, and force them to add their signature.

Ignore those who portray the Israel-Palestine conflict as some fiendishly complex diplomatic puzzle. By now we can be fairly certain what a peace deal would look like, because the two sides came close to signing one in 2008. The Palestinian state would be pock-marked by Israeli settlements that are too big or sensitive to be removed, and there would be no full-scale “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees of the first Arab-Israeli war. But in exchange for these compromises, the people of the West Bank and Gaza would be able to rebuild their tattered lives in an independent state.

But here’s the problem. It’s almost impossible to imagine Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu offering the Palestinians such a deal. For him to do so, he would have to reverse every instinct that has guided his political career (since Netanyahu was elected in 2009, Israel has seen the most rapid settlement growth in its history). He would have to go over the heads of his own coalition government and Likud party (both of which are dominated by hardliners who make no secret of their contempt for the two-state solution). And he would have to take on Israel’s most powerful political force: the settlers, who are busy ploughing money into remote West Bank towns that must be dismantled for any Palestinian state to be viable.

Optimists hope Netanyahu has had a change of heart about a negotiated settlement since the days when he helped lead the incitement against Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated for launching the modern “peace process”. This is naïve. If you want to know how a politician like Netanyahu will behave, don’t ask what he believes – ask what pressures he is reacting to.

Unless the Obama administration exerts all its weight to counteract the force of the settlers and their government stooges, here is what is likely to happen. Netanyahu will offer the Palestinians a divided mini-state, keeping for Israel much of the best land in the West Bank and control of its water resources. Abbas will say no, because he knows the Palestinian people would reject any deal that leaves them short of true independence. And Netanyahu will rehash the old Israeli script about Palestinian “obstinacy” proving that Israel has “no partner” for peace.

But just as predictable is the fact that, if Netanyahu walks away and the occupation continues, he – and Israel – will be making a colossal mistake. Sooner or later Palestinian resentment will erupt in a Third Intifada, which will lead to a bloody Israeli reaction. And when that happens, the world may no longer be in the mood to tolerate Israeli claims that it would stop oppressing the Palestinians if only they would be more cooperative.

Israel and its supporters will remind us, as usual, that it was the Arabs who rejected the first two-state solution before 1948; that for many years the Palestinian leadership dreamed of destroying Israel rather than making peace; and that many Palestinians still have not reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence. This is all true.

But when the world looks at the situation in Israel-Palestine today, certain other truths stand out. For example: there are no Palestinian bulldozers destroying Israeli homes. There are no Palestinian checkpoints where Israelis are humiliated on a routine basis. There are no Palestinian soldiers arresting Israeli children for throwing stones. There are no Palestinian guidelines for how many daily calories Israelis should be allowed to survive on as they live under blockade.

In other words, for all that there are no angels and demons in this conflict, one side is an occupier and the other is living under occupation.

Europe, the Jewish state’s biggest trading partner, is already losing patience with the occupation, and has announced that it will write what is effectively a settlement boycott into future investment projects in Israel. And as the conflict drags on with no end in sight, other powers, concerned at the way it fuels regional instability, are likely to follow suit.

Faced with such isolation, not even Israel’s settler lobby will be able to change the cold, hard economic facts. Benjamin Netanyahu should be warned: one day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, it may be Israel that is led meekly to the negotiating table, and told where to sign.