Israeli-Palestinian Talks Face a Big 'So What?'

Wide, long and not very satisfying was the yawn that greeted news that Israel and the Palestinian Authority will resume direct peace talks in Washington next month. After decades of fruitless negotiations interrupted by periods of stalemate or terror or both, expectations could scarcely be lower on either side.

"From 1947 till now, what did they get us?" asks Walid Salloun, 78, in the open doorway of his carpentry shop in downtown Ramallah, a Palestinian city whose sprawl would flow naturally into Jerusalem's but for the 20-foot-high concrete wall and Israeli watchtowers. "Many talks, but we do not see any result. Nothing happens." (See "In Israel, Commerce amid Conflict.")

On the other side of the barrier, Friday's announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to make the front page of Israel's largest papers. Under the headline "They Just Feel Like Talking," Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth wrote, "We've seen that movie. We've seen it again and again and again. It is hard to believe that this time it is going to have a happy end."

Many are the reasons for such indifference. There is widespread skepticism about the professed sincerity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given his history of resistance to earlier peace deals. Some say Bibi has changed his spots, following the same logic as fellow Likudnik Michael Eitan, who last week published a letter asserting that narrowing alternatives account for "our willingness to make territorial compromises and the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state."

But no one sees any new spirit of compromise winning over a majority of the seven ministers who make up Netanyahu's "security cabinet," larded as it is with hard-liners from religious and nationalist parties who make his ruling coalition so very right wing. (See pictures in "Palestinian 'Day of Rage.'")

"There are four ministers among the seven who are going to be against making major concessions to the Palestinians that would enable an agreement," says Oded Eran, who headed the Israeli negotiating team at Camp David in 2000, and did not see the makings of a breakthrough in what's visible of the Obama Administration's peace plan. "I think there's so many question marks on all of this. They puzzle me."

Nor does it bode well that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made it clear he was dragged to the talks kicking and screaming. The successor to Yasser Arafat has problematic support even among the half of the Palestinian population his Fatah party governs, on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The other half is locked down 20 miles due west in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, the fundamentalist militant group barred from U.S. talks for the logical enough reason that its charter calls for the destruction of the other party, Israel. (See "Out of Israel, an Embarrassing Facebook Post.")

Abbas, like most Palestinians, is wary of the Israelis using endless talks as a p.r. front, appeasing a watching world while continuing to have its way on the ground. Indeed Abbas insists he will ankle the proceedings if Israel resumes building settlements on the West Bank after Sept. 26, the formal end of the 10-month construction freeze President Obama last year strong-armed out of Netanyahu. "It's all bulls___," says a Ramallah businessman awakened from a midday Ramadan nap at his desk. "Our land keeps getting smaller and smaller. They steal our water. And what do we get?" (Comment on this story.)

He declines to give his name before heading back to sleep with a weary wave of his hand. "I've been in jail enough times."