Analysis: Little change after lots of Mideast talk

After a tense White House meeting and four speeches by the leaders of the U.S. and Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian picture is becoming clearer: a resumption of peace negotiations is improbable, and the Palestinians seem headed to the United Nations to get recognition instead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech Tuesday before a supportive U.S. Congress was remarkable in its way: the right-winger who once opposed even timid peace moves promised to be the first to recognize Palestine one day. But it also made clear to the Palestinians that his vision of their future state falls far short of what they want. Their reaction, predictably, was scathing.

The Palestinians also face a challenge from the United States. While much has been made of the tension between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama at a meeting last week, the Palestinians also heard an identical message from both: Peace must be negotiated, so don't go to the U.N.

They may ultimately drop the gambit if they conclude it promises to be a messy affair with a vague outcome.

But almost no one on the ground believes negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships can lead to an agreement. And both have set conditions for even restarting talks that are unlikely to be met.

First, Netanyahu is demanding that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cancel the three-week-old reconciliation agreement between his moderate Fatah party and the Hamas militant group. Hamas kicked Abbas' forces out of power in Gaza four years ago, and it still rules the coastal strip with an iron fist.

Israel — like the U.S. — views Hamas as a terrorist group bent on its destruction. Despite occasional hints of moderation, Hamas is unlikely anytime soon to bend to demands that it accept Israel, give up terrorism and adopt past peace accords.

There is a way around the Hamas issue: Take Abbas at his word that he is the negotiator, representing the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, and not just the Palestinian Authority government. But Netanyahu chose not to take it.

The unity deal may yet fall apart for other reasons, but it is key to Abbas because it enables him to say he represents all Palestinians, including those in Gaza. If he goes ahead with an appeal for recognition at the U.N. in September, Palestinian unity will be a key building block of his case.

Second, the Palestinians continue to demand Israel freeze new construction in Jewish settlements. With East Jerusalem included in this along with the West Bank, that means freezing construction in areas where about a half-million Israelis live.

Netanyahu opposes that on principle. He allowed a 10-month slowdown on settlement construction to expire in September, resulting in a collapse in negotiations. And in Tuesday's speech to Congress, he referred to the West Bank as the Jews' historical heartland and vowed never to divide Jerusalem.

The Palestinians are sticking to this demand.

This equation might have changed if the Palestinians found enough to be tempted by in the visions of peace outlined in the four speeches: Obama's on Thursday and Sunday, and Netanyahu's on Monday and Tuesday.

Obama may have hoped to achieve just that when he said in his first speech that a peace deal must be based on the pre-1967 lines, and that elicited plaudits from the Palestinians and shock in Israel. It accounted for the tension in his meeting Friday with Netanyahu, who afterward lectured the U.S. president on Mideast history in front of the cameras.

But Obama also mentioned mutually agreed land swaps — a point that throws much open to discussion and which he amplified, apparently to the Israelis' satisfaction, in his second speech. The net result is a sense that borders based on the pre-1967 lines have yet to be negotiated, and the devil will be in the details. It's a nuanced U.S. nod to Abbas, but probably not a gamechanger for the Palestinians.

Netanyahu embraced Palestinian statehood in his speech to Congress, speaking warmly of his neighbors' progress toward building institutions in the past two years, convincingly explaining why Israel must not rule the Palestinians, and promising to be the first to recognize an independent Palestine when the time is right.

He also said he knows some settlements will be abandoned in any feasible deal — hardly a revolutionary concept, but the clearest such statement from him.

To hear such words from any Israeli leader — let alone one from the right — would have been deeply startling just a few years ago.

Now, it seems to be too little, too late.

Netanyahu refused to agree explicitly to a deal based on 1967, although he seems to harbor few illusions that this is, more or less, what must be done. That would have been a gesture toward Obama, not just the Palestinians.

He ruled out any division of Jerusalem, where Palestinians want the occupied eastern sector to be their capital. The complications there are huge: the Old City, which is in the occupied part, is holy not only to Jews and Muslims but to Christians as well. And about 200,000 Israelis live on occupied Jerusalem land surrounding the Arab core, rendering the city an ethnically mixed jumble.

He called on Abbas to tell Palestinians that Israel is the Jewish state.

And he ruled out any return to Israel of Palestinian refugees or their descendants, even though the right of return is a demand the Palestinians seem to be sticking to despite widespread expectations that they will ultimately drop it.

Shaul Mofaz, a top leader of the center-left opposition Kadima party, said Netanyahu's performance amounted to saying that "he intends to do nothing, he has no plan, and he does not intend to reach an agreement."

Top Palestinian official Nabil Shaath offered a very similar view.

"This is like a declaration of war against the Palestinians," Shaath said. "He offered a solution based on ignoring the '67 borders, ignoring Jerusalem, ignoring the right of return."

"We have nothing (to do) but continue our struggle on the international arena," he added, apparently referring to the U.N. plan.

The Palestinians are still trying to figure out how to navigate the world body's maze of procedures and politics.

Normally, the U.N. Security Council recommends membership, and only then does the General Assembly vote on it. But the Palestinians expect the United States to veto that resolution in the council, and they are looking for an alternate path.

That could mean a direct appeal to the General Assembly — where the Palestinians enjoy huge support. Legal arguments about the validity of the U.N. procedures governing new members may be in store.

In the end, they may get little more than observer status as a "nonmember state" — far less than what they hoped for and lacking the ability to help them challenge the legality of Israel's continuing occupation.

But it may give them enough of a tail wind to spark mass protests in the West Bank and along Israel's borders, to spur discussion of boycotts against Israel and to isolate the Jewish state in myriad ways.

Another armed uprising is not being discussed by Palestinian leaders, but with today's Middle East in the throes of change and foment, it cannot be discounted. Unarmed mass protests could easily spin out of control.

Israel does not take any of this lightly. Netanyahu will return home to applause from some for his tough stand, criticism from others for needlessly walking on a razor's edge, and an increasingly audible rumble of calls for early elections.


Dan Perry is The Associated Press bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian areas.