Serious but inconclusive

Because the 1993 declaration of principles (Oslo agreement) took everybody by surprise by arriving in the middle of the overwhelming pessimism that surrounded the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Washington at the time, analysts have since become very alert to possible similar sudden breakthroughs.

In this regard, the current Annapolis process is very similar and analysts have perked up their ears at certain optimistic statements regarding that process, mainly from Israeli and US officials, that have been heard in recent weeks in spite of the comprehensive pessimism that otherwise surround these talks.

What is already known and agreed about the current process is that very extensive, comprehensive and serious negotiations are going on between the Israeli team headed by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, and the Palestinian team headed by Ahmed Qurei, a former prime minister. These negotiations are proceeding on two levels: one deals with certain aspects of the final status issues, particularly borders with their indirect connection to the issues of settlements and Jerusalem; the other is a technical team devoted to eight practical issues.

But while the two sides seem to be in agreement about the seriousness and comprehensiveness of the negotiations, they are imparting two contradicting impressions about their progress and possible success.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, visited Paris recently and announced that agreement was within reach. But today we hear Qurei saying to a meeting of top Fateh leaders that while the "ongoing negotiations are serious and difficult, this does not indicate a possibility of reaching agreement on any final status issue". He went so far as to say that, "if Israel will not support our choice of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem, then the alternative demand of the Palestinian people and leadership will be a bi-national state."

It is possible that this is part of the negotiations process and that Qurei is making these statements as a bargaining tool to pressure Israel and the US to be more forthcoming. However, the political reality of the three parties involved leaves us with little optimism for a possible breakthrough.

Olmert will not, with the current domestic political reality in Israel and at a time when he has resigned his post and is filling space while a successor is found, be allowed to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, will find it difficult to deliver Palestinians to any agreement he reaches due to the division among Palestinians and in their authority. The US, meanwhile, is in the middle of one of its toughest elections and with time running out for the Bush administration, Washington has little leverage and room for maneuver, especially since it is consumed with other pressing issues, particularly Iran and Iraq.

In spite or even because of the above it remains a possibility that these parties will resort to a face-saving formula as a conclusion to the "extensive and serious" negotiations that started at the Annapolis conference. It makes little sense for the three parties, especially the US, to invest such significant political capital, raising expectations in the process, and then just leave it with no result.

The three parties all have vested interests in reaching a conclusion to negotiations though they cannot afford to reach agreement on a solution to the conflict. Therefore, likely scenarios include either an agreement on a formula that is general enough for all parties to accept, even if open to different interpretations, or a bridging proposal put on the table by the US sponsor that will be accompanied by the necessary pressure on the parties to accept, similar to the Clinton parameters after the failure of the Camp David process.

On the Palestinian side, the Fateh leadership is in a bind. On the one hand, President Abbas needs to show some tangible result from negotiations to convince an increasingly skeptical public that his chosen path is worth pursuing. In addition, the Fateh leadership is preparing for the long-awaited Fateh Congress and has been hoping to use a possible political breakthrough as a vehicle to unify, reform and restore morale to that leadership. On the other, with Israel showing little inclination to reach an agreement that would be minimally acceptable to Palestinians, a comprehensive agreement is out of reach.

Thus, either of the two above alternative scenarios might seem preferable to no result at all. The problem with both is that they will not lead to any tangible progress toward an end to the Israeli occupation or even the Israeli practices that consolidate that occupation, especially Israeli settlement building in and around Jerusalem. Such a result is as bad as no result and will further convince Palestinians that the negotiations process is a dead end. This, in turn, will translate into further support for Hamas.