Israelis and Palestinians are about to take a giant step backwards that might help them move toward peace.
After more than 16 years of face-to-face negotiations, they are on the verge of reverting to indirect talks through an American mediator. It is a sign of the lack of trust between the adversaries, and their lack of real commitment to what used to be called the "peace process."
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is willing or able to make the essential historic compromises required for signing a peace treaty. But it is in their interests to appear that they are.
Before any talks can begin, Abbas needs help climbing down from the limb he crawled out on — with American encouragement. He has refused any direct negotiations unless Israel meets his — and temporarily, the Obama administration's — demand for a total construction freeze beyond the 1967 border.
It soon became obvious that was a nonstarter, but Abbas couldn't retreat without appearing weak and indecisive, which he actually is. So he needed a face-saving solution, and U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell came up with it — indirect talks.
That would mean turning the clock back on 16 years of on-again, off-again direct negotiations, but the fact that all three parties are happy to go along suggests prospects for progress remain dim.
Nonetheless, there's something in it for everyone.
· Abbas can insist that he's not compromising on his unrealistic demands because those apply to direct talks, and these are at a lower level.
· Netanyahu can reverse the drop in his and Israel's international stature by grabbing the mantle of peacemaker, while assuring the hard-liners in his government that he made no new concessions to get the Palestinians to the table, and;
· Obama can show that his Mideast policy isn't a flop.
Abbas has been under pressure from the Americans, Europeans and Arabs to find a path to the peace table.
In return, he is expected to get a package of Israeli goodwill gestures, reportedly including the release of some Palestinian prisoners; the transfer of additional West Bank areas to Palestinian Authority control; the reopening of Palestinian offices in eastern Jerusalem; and a halt in Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities.
Palestinian sources say that the proximity talks could begin as early as Feb. 20 and last three to four months, with Mitchell shuttling between the two teams.
Abbas has been complaining recently that Obama isn't putting pressure on Israel; he wants the administration to declare its positions on final-status issues — refugees, Jerusalem, borders — and provide assurances of what it will do if Israel does not agree to them, Palestinian officials have been telling reporters.
That would be an incentive for him to run out the clock, and then demand that Obama force Israel to accept those terms. That's an obvious nonstarter for Israel, and another excuse by Abbas to avoid negotiations.
That appeared to be on Netanyahu's mind when he told his Cabinet this week: "We will not enter into negotiations when everything is known in advance."
Returning to high-level negotiations is risky for all parties because they'll be raising expectations even though producing a breakthrough is slim. There will be a high price to pay for failure, from the loss of public trust to possible war. Palestinians can no more get the United States to be their surrogate and force their terms on Israel than Israel can get away with stalling endlessly in the hope everyone will just leave them alone.
Hamas remains a major obstacle. Abbas nominally speaks for the West Bank, but his authority is rejected in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Assuming he could reach an agreement with Israel, he couldn't implement it in Gaza, where he dare not even set foot.
Netanyahu has said that he has no problem with "indirect negotiations" if they provide Abbas with "a corridor" that will lead to high-level talks."
Much will depend on whether the Obama administration regards the new talks as the first step toward reviving the peace process or simply as a face-saving gesture, after its initially inflated expectations were dashed against harsh Middle East realities.
So far, the signs are far from clear.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist based in Washington, D.C.