by David Harris
JERUSALEM, Jan. 5 (Xinhua) -- A series of recent comments from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would suggest that the parties of the peace talks are heading in the direction of the negotiating table. The Egyptians are exerting efforts to bring the leaders together, with what analysts believe is the firm backing of the United States.
However, the facts on the ground remain the same and leave little room for optimism. Israel has only implemented a partial settlement freeze and the Palestinian public does not appear to be supportive of the rebooting of talks until Israel stops all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
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Over the last few days, Netanyahu has been speaking publicly ofhis desire to launch immediate and unconditional talks with the Palestinians.
The hawkish Israeli leader Monday said "There is a certain change in the air... We are serious in our intentions to reach a peace agreement."
The Palestinians maintain Netanyahu is not really prepared to enter talks without setting his own conditions, having already listed a series of demands he expects to be met by the Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio on Tuesday that "The current Israeli government hasn't opened page one of the Road Map, and yet they talk about peace and resuming negotiations."
Israeli spin doctors argued that Netanyahu's expectations are open to negotiation and should not be seen as preconditions. The Israelis added that it is the Palestinians who are setting terms for a return to negotiations, with their insistence that Israel must halt all settlement activity.
The Americans and the Egyptians are trying to find a way to break this impasse. Israeli political scientists and Peace Now activist Galia Golan said that there is something in the works that could bridge the gap between the parties, but it is still unknown what the formula is.
Golan said on Tuesday that "What could break this deadlock would be some new and original form of negotiations both so that Abbas could say that he is not going into more and more talks that lead nowhere and also that he can justify giving up this condition of a total freeze."
When Abbas met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on Monday, there was no indication of an immediate restart of talks, but Palestinian officials did tell reporters that they are waiting to see the results of American-Egyptian diplomatic efforts over the next week or two.
Two senior Egyptian officials are expected to fly this weekend to Washington to discuss the creation of a mechanism that will allow both Israel and the Palestinians to climb over the current hurdles to a parley.
American special envoy to the region George Mitchell is expected to pay his first visit this year to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the next couple of weeks.
The Israelis are talking up the idea of Cairo hosting a summit to be attended by all the relevant parties including Netanyahu and Abbas.
It is not the first summit proposed for finding a path towards the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but other proposals that were slated for early this year have seemingly fallen off the agenda, noted Golan.
The Russians were keen to host an international conference, but that seems to have disappeared completely. Meanwhile, little has been heard of a similar conference proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country takes over the chair of the UN Security Council from China in February.
It is impossible to read where all of this diplomatic activity, or lack thereof, is taking the peace process, said Hillel Cohen, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"We'll only know in a year if this was a sneeze or something more serious, but at the moment we don't event know if this is potentially a small symptom of something," he said.
According to Golan, Abbas does want a return to peace talks, but he has to be given a way to join them without losing face at home.
The electorate and even members of his own Fatah movement were angered by a series of U.S. moves on the international scene in late 2009 that seemed to publicly embarrass Abbas.
Principle among them was the pressure placed on Abbas to call for a delay in a vote at the UN Human Rights Council of a damning report regarding Israeli activities during its assault on Gaza a year ago.
In the wake of these pressures on the Palestinians, Abbas and his colleagues dug in over their insistence that the Israeli building freeze in the territories must be complete.
Golan also noted that although Netanyahu wants to be seen talking with the Palestinians, he does not really intend to push hard for an agreement. Indeed, given the hawkish composition of Netanyahu's coalition government, it would be extremely difficult for him to bring home any form of peace offer that would be acceptable.
Meanwhile, Cohen pointed to another element to the multifarious dynamics at play -- the ongoing talks between Fatah and its main rival on the Palestinian scene, Hamas.
There have been reports in the last few days that rapprochement between them may be at hand after three years of major rankling. Cohen said that the Egyptians and "anyone who is serious" would want to link the possibility of a thaw in Fatah-Hamas relations with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"But that means the inclusion of Hamas in the diplomatic process, which Israel is not prepared to accept," he said.