Donald Macintyre: Could this be the moment for Middle East negotiations?

The Europeans are hoping for serious talks between Mr Olmert and the Palestinians
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The Independent Online

So when Carter suggests something as - in the present unpropitious circumstances - heroically counter-intuitive as negotiations aimed at a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it is worth listening.

Most Israelis and Palestinians understandably regard such a thing as being off the radar. On the one hand the Palestinian Authority is led by a faction doctrinally committed to the elimination of Israel, and responsible for the large majority of suicide bombings in Israel over the past five years.

On the other, the new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has just been elected on a programme - opposed by all Palestinians from Mahmoud Abbas down - of unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank combined with annexation and continued Jewish settlement in others. Mr Olmert was pursuing this policy before Hamas won the Palestinian elections. But its victory has provided a near-perfect reinforcement of the argument that there is "no partner".

Or so it has so far seemed. Mr Olmert will be handsomely feted by President Bush in Washington today and tomorrow. But as an astute politician, he knows he will not, this week at least, return with the kind of diplomatic success that Ariel Sharon secured in April 2004 as a reward for Gaza disengagement, when the President promised - in a move intended to pre-empt the course of future negotiations - that it was no longer "realistic" to expect a final peace deal based on the borders before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

True, that may suit Mr Olmert. The details of the plan so far are unclear; he may have greater need of such an endorsement when he comes to push it through a possibly recalcitrant Knesset.

But the Administration has its own reasons for delay. This is hardly the moment to inflame the Arab world - including Mr Bush's ally the King of Jordan who has registered his strong opposition to the plan - by giving fulsome endorsement to it in its present form.

Secondly, its draconian boycott policy apparently designed - at least by some in the Administration - to produce the fall of Hamas and the return of Fatah looks even more implausible than before; the alternative is likely to be the chaos of which an ominous foretaste is already all too visible in Gaza. And thirdly, the Europeans are - so far at least - pushing for a genuine effort at negotiations with Mr Abbas.

But negotiations to what end? Here the US especially is impaled on a contradiction. On the one hand, it wants - at least for now - to keep Mr Abbas in play. On the other, it's hard to see how negotiations could take place without the tacit approval of Hamas - which Mr Abbas says he is confident he has.

And indeed a sentient being coming fresh to the problem from another planet might think, given Hamas is always going to be a factor, it might be better to seek a deal when it has every interest in securing international recognition and ending violence rather than driving it back into opposition when recourse to violence is the obvious alternative.

This may all be fantasy of course. And the strong hints from within Hamas that it might recognize Israel in return for a negotiated two-state solution so much guile. But whether it would ever be put to the test by Israel remains doubtful, to say the least.

In deference to the US, there will be some kind of Olmert-Abbas summit this summer. On the one hand some in his coalition - notably Labour's Amir Peretz - have been pressing for serious talks with Mr Abbas. And Mr Olmert, a more unknown quantity than Mr Sharon, is said to be keen for the support of the Europeans. But Mr Olmert's abrasive description at the weekend of Mr Abbas's "powerlessness" strongly suggests that he is - at least so far - uninterested in doing more than going through the motions.

Which means that the international community, President Bush especially, would have to press the new prime minister to adopt a course he shows little will for at present. No one rational thinks this is anything other than highly improbable.

What is certain is that for all Iran will be talked up today, Israel-Palestine will be the elephant in the room. Abba Eban's endlessly quoted gibe about "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" was directed at the Palestinians. Mr Bush might just reflect when he meets Mr Olmert that it can apply to US presidents as well.