JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians are set to begin indirect peace talks mediated by the United States, though observers see little chance of the latest diplomatic push getting further than previous efforts to end the conflict.
So why are the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans bothering at all?
The United States has been trying for more than a year to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations.
President Barack Obama’s administration has described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “a vital national security interest” and his tough line toward Israel has generated speculation that he may be willing to push hard for a solution.
Analysts believe the policy is driven in part by U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. U.S. General David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in March that tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have an “enormous” effect where U.S. forces operate in the Muslim world.
PALESTINIAN MOTIVES Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to make peace on terms acceptable to the Palestinians. But he sees the talks as a chance to test U.S. resolve.
Abbas, by far the weaker party to the conflict, has taken heart from recent U.S. criticism of Israeli policies which he hopes could mark a real shift in the U.S. approach.
Though Abbas had demanded a full halt to Israeli settlement building on occupied land before any talks, he has spoken of U.S. assurances that Israel will not do anything “provocative” to derail the negotiations.
Abbas faces domestic criticism for backing a return to talks. But there is a limit to how deep he can dig his heels in resisting a return to talks. His Ramallah-based administration depends on aid from Western governments that support the peace process.
Israeli officials question whether they have a Palestinian “partner for peace,” pointing to Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip as a sign of the weakness of the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas from the West Bank. Hamas has shunned the peace process.
But Netanyahu is eager to satisfy the demands of the United States, Israel’s main ally, for a resumption of negotiations and has long stated his readiness to resume talks with the Palestinians.
He is keen to patch up recent U.S.-Israeli differences over Israel’s settlement building to ensure smooth sailing on joint efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear project.
With negotiations going ahead in an indirect format, Netanyahu does not count on being faced soon by any difficult decisions on a land-for-peace deal that could endanger his pro-settler coalition. Israeli officials have said only direct negotiations can resolve the issues. (Writing by Tom Perry and Allyn Fisher-Ilan, editing by Mark Trevelyan)