Leading article: The blessing of low expectations

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Another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has begun in Washington. And there are plenty of reasons to fear that these negotiations will be as fruitless as all the others that have taken place over the past four decades.

The Palestinians are divided between the Fatah government in the West Bank and Hamas, which holds sway in Gaza. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, already weakened by the expiry of his democratic mandate, will be negotiating over territory that he does not even control.

The Israeli side is scarcely any more stable. The government of the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is propped up by the extremists of Yisrael Beiteinu. The head of that party, Avigdor Lieberman, has made little effort to disguise his hostility to any settlement with the Palestinians.

The divisions between the two sides over the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future status of Jerusalem look as wide as ever. And there will be an added dose of religious contention in these negotiations. Mr Netanyahu has said he wants a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state", something many Palestinians fear would mean the historical legitimisation of their 1948 dispossession. And there are plenty of potential triggers for the breakdown of talks even before such matters come to be discussed. These range from the expiry of the Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlement building later this month to further murderous Hamas attacks on settlers of the sort seen this week.

The White House is unlikely to push too hard for concessions from Israel in a year of Congressional elections. And even the language of President Obama suggests pessimism. Yesterday, the US leader urged the two sides not to let the chance of peace "slip away", hardly an indication that he will be badgering both sides for progress in the coming months.

It is possible to understand why the White House has set a one-year deadline for the end of the talks. An open-ended commitment would have given the green light for endless prevarication. But the truth is that both sides would be perfectly willing to let the process end in 2011 without agreement. To the politicians of the Middle East, stasis is often the path of least resistance.

Yet it would be wrong to argue that the whole process is pointless and that President Obama would be better off concentrating his attention elsewhere. It is the US's responsibility – and firmly within its national interest – to act as a broker in this conflict and to push for a resolution. One of the few real insights in Tony Blair's memoirs is the argument that sporadic and inconsistent US engagement in this conflict over the years has hindered the search for a settlement.

And a case for hope can, just about, be made. The broad contours of a settlement – two separate states and Israel's withdrawal to 1967 borders – is already agreed. The hardline Mr Netanyahu might just have the domestic political space to make the concession necessary to achieve a settlement, just as Richard Nixon belied his uncompromising public image by forging entente with China. The Israeli Prime Minister is also said to be desperate for greater international pressure on Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme. That could make him more amenable to making the concessions necessary for the creation of a future Palestinian state.

And the pessimism which surrounds these talks could, paradoxically, prove a blessing by easing the pressures in the negotiating room. In the past, negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have begun with official expectations of a breakthrough reasonably high. We will now see what can be achieved with expectations of progress at rock bottom.

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