Sometimes, peace in the Middle East seems tantalisingly close, as if just a little more effort is needed to reach a set of propositions that different parties can all live with. At other times, it seems absurdly far away, as if the parties have so little in common that there is really nothing for them to talk about. This is one of those times.

Speaking earlier this week to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu professed himself “prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions”. But he gave no hint of the shape of a political settlement he might be willing to accept and again refused to commit to the idea of a Palestinian state.

Previously, at the same conference, US vice-president Joe Biden had delivered an unusually blunt message to the Israelis: “Israel has to work for a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this, but do not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”

Biden has a reputation for loose talk, but this is a case where it looks as if he has been wheeled out to give voice to something the administration wants said, but that its more diplomatic members want to keep some distance from. It’s a further sign that America’s patience with Netanyahu is wearing thin.

Another sign is the increased murmuring, in both Europe and America, about negotiating with Hamas — something that will have to happen one day if peace is to have a chance. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal duly came to the party on Monday in a long interview with The New York Times, saying “We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce.”

Almost mirroring Netanyahu’s position, Meshal refuses to directly recognise Israel’s legitimacy, describing that demand as “a pretext by the United States and Israel to escape dealing with the real issue”. No doubt true, but then why not call their bluff?

The problem is that even if negotiations do get going, there is no obvious willingness on either side to take the steps needed for an agreement. Writing in Haaretz, Daniel Levy says they are both seeking “a comfort zone, a place where the peace process can continue ad infinitum, and hard decisions can be avoided.” American pressure seems the only thing that might push Israel out of that comfort zone.

The good news is that if any Israeli leader can push through a comprehensive settlement, it is Netanyahu. If a centrist or centre-left leader were to make the concessions that will be necessary, it would split the country down the middle. Only Nixon could go to China and only Netanyahu has the credibility needed to face down the extremists on the right.

So far, however, there is not the slightest sign that he wants to.

Peter Fray

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