Hillary Clinton meets with Palestinian and Israeli. Is something cooking?

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems to be stirring, and the US is calling it 'very much alive.' But analysts doubt anything significant can be achieved before the US elections in November.

The dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process is showing signs of stirring – prompted by renewed Palestinian threats of a unilateral declaration of statehood, Israeli worries over the long-term implications of abandoning the two-state solution, and a recent series of quiet contacts between the two sides.

And then there’s the desire on the part of the Obama White House – which was scorched by its decision to make Middle East peace a top priority as of Inauguration Day 2009 – to avoid having the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rear up as a time-consuming distraction as it enters the fall presidential campaign.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met separately Wednesday with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, the latest signs of a renewed US interest in demonstrating that the peace process is not dead.

Yet despite the flurry of speculation the meetings have caused about prospects for a return to negotiations, the chances of anything substantive happening before the November elections are slim, most Middle East analysts say.

“Right now there’s a vacuum, and a realization that a vacuum is the worst thing you can have, given what can happen to try to fill it,” says Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group in Washington. “So I think the administration wants to do enough to keep the lid on the worst events that could occur, and they’re hoping something can be done to convince the Palestinians not to go to the UN” to unilaterally declare statehood, he adds. “But it’s hard to see anything serious happening until at least next year.”

Secretary Clinton made no public comments after the two meetings, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US was continuing its efforts to keep the two sides talking.

Saying the peace process is "very much alive," Ms. Nuland told reporters the US is "looking for as much direct engagement between Israelis and Palestinians as we can have."

She skirted a question about a US role in reported efforts to set a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mr. Mofaz, saying only that "Any combination of Israelis and Palestinians getting together and working on their issues would be a step in the right direction."

After his meeting with Clinton, Erekat told reporters that the Palestinians "want to resume negotiations," but he said Israel's settlement policy stands in the way. He said Netanyahu "has a choice to make: settlements or peace." 

Erekat is in Washington even as the Palestinian leadership revives talk of going to the United Nations to unilaterally declare statehood. Mr. Abbas tried that maneuver last year, forcing President Obama to declare to the world his opposition to Palestinian statehood not arrived at through negotiations with Israel – even though Obama had made himself the champion of peace through Palestinian independence from the outset of his presidency.

Last year Mr. Abbas took his bid to the Security Council, where it died under the American promise of a veto, but this year he could try the General Assembly – a purely symbolic move, since the General Assembly has no power to recognize new states, but one that the US nevertheless wishes to avoid.

Mofaz, a former defense minister and army chief of staff, has caused a stir in Israel with his view that failure to arrive at a two-state solution poses a long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish state, and that an unresolved Palestinian conflict poses a more imminent threat to Israel than Iran’s nuclear program.

But little suggests that Mofaz’s views are shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Domestic political considerations – and not shared viewpoints on the Palestinian issue – prompted Mr. Netanyahu to bring in Mofaz, the head of the centrist Kadima party, as deputy prime minister last month, analysts say.

By his own accounts before leaving Israel for the US, Mofaz planned to seek US support for reviving the stalled peace process in his meeting with Clinton. But the deputy prime minister, who was also set to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and members of Congress, was also strategizing with US officials on increasing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

In any case, it is Netanyahu who counts on the Israeli side when it comes to issues like the peace process, analysts say, and they generally concur that the Israeli leader is in no hurry to return to the negotiating table.

The Palestinian issue is “nowhere near the top tier of priorities” for either Netanyahu or most Israelis, Mr. Malley says. The prevailing view, he adds – far from that of Mofaz – is that returning to talks “is not particularly necessary because the status quo is not that painful.”

Others acknowledge that the prevailing view in Israel is one of low prospects for any meaningful movement in the peace process – but they say that can be the right time to make progress.

“People have fairly low expectations, no doubt, especially as to whether the Palestinians are prepared to come to the table,” says Peter A. Joseph, president of the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, who is currently visiting Israel. “But whether that can be the best time to move things forward, there’s certainly a strategy along those lines.”

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