Where Will the Middle East Peace Talks Go?

Israelis, Palestinians begin talks under former Sen. George Mitchell's tutelage.

JERUSALEM, May 3, 2010 — -- Little fanfare is expected this week when proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians finally start under the patient tutelage of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

It has been painfully slow getting this far and, cynics will say, this far isn't very far at all. Expectations on both sides remain low.

But for the Obama administration, there will be satisfaction that a process of some sort is finally underway. The sides have not talked since the end of 2008.

The mechanics of how the talks will unfold remain shrouded in mystery. Most bet on Mitchell, who's the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, driving the 20 minutes between Jerusalem and Ramallah conveying messages and negotiating positions between the two sides.

Lawyer and Benjamin Netanyahu confidant Yitzhak Molcho will head up the Israeli team, the veteran peace talker Saeb Erekat will lead the Palestinians. Israeli media report that the Israeli prime minister himself may get the ball rolling in the opening sessions.

And what will they talk about? One of the major concessions the Israelis seem to have made is to agree to start discussing the core issues at the start of the process.

That means all the "sacred cows" will be up for discussion, including borders, refugees, water, settlements, the division of Jerusalem, security, and Palestinian de-militarization. It's unlikely any decisions will be taken until the talks move onto the direct phase, assuming the process develops.

It is unclear what package of concessions the Israelis offered the Americans to induce the Palestinians back to the table. Following the debacle of Joe Biden's visit and Israel's announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians walked away. Two months have been spent trying to get the sides back together.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, is still insisting on a total freeze in Jewish settlement building in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu is still insisting such a demand is a non-starter.

A private agreement not to announce any further construction plans in the Arab half of the city is, however, widely assumed.

Few Hopes for Change as Two Sides Meet

Given the almost complete lack of trust between the sides, it is hard to find anyone holding out hope for the process.

It has been 16 years since Israelis and Palestinians launched the doomed Oslo process. Thousands of papers have been collected on each of the major issues since then. One can safely assume dust is being blown off folders in Jerusalem and Ramallah, familiar grievances and arguments are being re-rehearsed.

Netanyahu is seen as a reluctant convert to the two-state idea. Palestinians, and probably the Obama team as well, are skeptical of his commitment. Both are interested to find out exactly what kind of Palestinian state he has in mind and where it will be.

Jerusalem has been one of the major sticking points in previous rounds of negotiations.

The Israelis will push hard for security guarantees and the de-militarization of a future Palestine. They will point to rocket attacks from Gaza as a bitter legacy of Israeli concessions there. They also want to hear Palestinians signing up to the idea of lsrael being a Jewish state, and that will mean painful and so far unprecedented Palestinian concessions on the return of refugees.

None of the issues have changed, nor have the potential solutions. But there is a new president in the White House and a belief that ending this conflict is now a vital, strategic U.S. interest. That is new.