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Yet another attempt at peace

Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis start again amid widespread pessimism

A climate of apathy envelops the latest round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which were to begin yesterday in Jerusalem after three years of paralysis. There is no real expectation of progress in the negotiation process, sponsored as usual by the United States. The positions of both sides on all the central issues (the status of Jerusalem, eventual borders, settlements, the rights of refugees and security) have not moved an inch, and the parties arrive at the negotiating table with a manifest lack of enthusiasm.

Israel has also taken the trouble to cloud the preamble to the talks with the announcement of the construction of almost 2,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has presented this move as a way of calming the malaise generated in the most conservative sector of his government by the decision to release 104 prisoners, some jailed for crimes of violence, as had been demanded by the Palestinian Authority. The first 25 walked free on Tuesday.

The Israeli government also argues that the enlargement of the settlements had already been planned, and that the areas affected will go on being Israeli territory under any future agreement. While the announcement takes no one by surprise, either in the United States or among the Palestinians themselves, it can hardly be perceived as anything other than a gesture of defiance.

In spite of these discouraging precedents, and the profound internal divisions both in Israel and in the ranks of the Palestinians, the American secretary of state, John Kerry, is sticking to his determination to seat the two parties at a table, to go on talking for as long as may be necessary.

Working in his favor may be some factors so far unseen in the 20 years that these attempts at negotiation have been going on. For the first time, the Israeli ultraconservatives — and in particular the Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett, the third-largest party in the government — may be playing a role as part of the negotiating team. There is room for hope that they will be less of an obstacle inside the negotiations than they were outside of them.

And, however bizarre or paradoxical it may seem, it is a fact that many major peace agreements in the world have been brought to a successful conclusion by the impetus derived from the presence of the most extreme elements — that is, the bitterest enemies, at the bargaining table.

The regional context has also changed, having been altered by the war in Syria, the situation in Iran, the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and the aggravation of sectarian violence in several Arab states. Israelis and Palestinians may be looking at the last opportunity to reach an agreement that would allow for the creation of two states, which appears to be the only realistic solution for peaceful coexistence with Israel. The alternative is that the conflict will drag on into a state of stagnation, with an Israel that grows ever more isolated in the midst of a turbulent region.

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