Leading article: Signs of life in the peace process

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The Independent Online

The Middle East peace process is a peculiar beast. It lumbers along, mostly at a snail's pace, at times juddering to a halt and even sliding into reverse. Many doubt its viability. Some feel it has outlived its time; still others treat it as mythical. Yet every now and again it defies all the doom-watchers to evince real signs of life. This is one of those times.

Just when even inveterate optimists were turning sceptical about the feasibility of the two-state solution that – it has been assumed – will underpin any lasting agreement, there is movement. Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo this week, have given their backing to the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians after a hiatus of more than a year. The Arab League decision gives President Mahmoud Abbas the political cover he had sought to return to the negotiating table, a year after the Israeli assasult on Gaza.

It would be going too far to hail the resumption of the peace process proper. The talks will be only indirect, with US mediators shuttling between the two sides. They will also be temporary, for a trial period of four months. But this is a face-saving formula that allows Mr Abbas to reopen channels of communication, even though Israel has not acceded to the Palestinians' main condition for doing so: a total freeze on the settlements. The Israeli Prime Minister announced a 10-month halt to new construction in the West Bank in November – which was more than Benjamin Netanyahu had been expected to offer – but the Palestinians had insisted that all building, not just new building, should cease.

There have been signs, too, of slight movement on the other block to a serious revival of the peace process: the division between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-ruled West Bank. The first meetings between officials took place last month under Egyptian mediation, and any lessening of hostility will undermine Israel's complaint – that it has no one to negotiate with. While there is no prospect of a real rapprochement between the Palestinian sides very soon, any hint of flexibility is progress. With this, and the imminent start of indirect talks with Israel, it is premature to declare the peace process dead.