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Mideast peace talks: RIP?

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Robin Lustig | 08:00 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

The thing I love about truisms is that - often - they are true. But not always. Take this one: "No progress is ever made in the Middle East unless the US is fully engaged."

True? Well, no, actually. The biggest single step towards a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (or, at least, that's what it looked like at the time) was the Oslo declaration of principles signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993.

Yes, it was signed with lots of fanfares in Washington, with President Bill Clinton as ring-master. But the talking, the drafting and the negotiating had taken place in secret, in Norway, without US knowledge.

Why do I bring this up now? For the simple reason that the US has, in effect, admitted that it's out of ideas when it comes to advancing the Middle East peace process. It tried to bring the two sides together to start talking seriously again - and it failed. It tried to persuade the Israelis to stop expanding their illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank - and it failed.

Result? Paralysis. If Washington is out of ideas, so is everyone else. That, at least, is what the truism would suggest.

Just yesterday, Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo rejected the idea of any new Palestinian-Israeli peace talks unless there is first a "serious offer" from the US.

But perhaps this is another of those occasions when the truism doesn't hold true. According to a recent article by the veteran Middle East analyst Patrick Seale, Russia is beginning to wonder if it could step into the gap left by Washington's failures.

Reporting on a recent Moscow-sponsored conference held in Malta, Seale says Russian impatience with the United States has become increasingly clear. Most of the conference participants, he writes, agreed that the United States' monopoly of the peace process has yielded nothing and that joint action is now necessary.

After all, in theory, international efforts to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict have been channelled through the Quartet, made up of the US, Russia, the UN and the EU. In reality, it was dominated by Washington.

The reason was clear enough - only the US, it was said, had sufficient clout to influence Israel when concessions were needed. Not necessarily so, it now emerges, since even US clout hasn't been enough to persuade Israel to stop expanding its settlements.

Some people say Fine. Leave them to it. If they can't make peace, so be it. But the status quo suits Israel far more than it suits the Palestinians. What's more, political and diplomatic vacuums have a nasty habit of being filled by suicide bombers.

According to Patrick Seale, among the ideas floated at the Malta conference was that multi-lateral negotations should be launched, including regional players like Turkey and Iran. (Iran? Can you see the US or Israel agreeing to a process that included Iran?)

Perhaps Moscow could convene a major international conference to run in parallel with what's left of the Washington-led process. I suggested something rather similar on this blog two years ago, which may be why I find it such an intriguing idea. But don't get too excited - because here's how Patrick Seale ended his report from Malta:

"The conference ended on a note of pessimism. No one could see a way out of a situation created by an enfeebled United States, a divided Europe, a passive Arab world obsessed by an alleged threat from Iran, a Palestinian society divided geographically and ideologically, and an unrelenting Israeli government ..."

The Guardian wrote in an editorial yesterday that the Middle East peace process has died a "quiet, undramatic death" but that the US "is unwilling to set a date for the funeral, because to recognise that a death had taken place would entail an inquest and an examination of 18 fruitless years of failed attempts."

So, for now, the death goes unacknowledged, and mourners are turned away. But the fact remains that there's no breath left in the shell that once was a peace process.

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