US and Israel skirted around admitting that direct Israel-Palestinian dialogue had foundered after 26 days Sunday, Sept. 26, as Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement construction on the West Bank expired. American spokesmen commented that with the resumption of building, a one-year clock had begun ticking for a peace accord. Even Mahmoud Abbas, who staged a walkout over Israel's refusal to extend the building freeze, did not admit to the breakdown. He left this task to Arab League Secretary Amr Mousa of Egypt and his own Fatah party, whom he said he would consult, although they were against the talks from the first.
These talks, such as they were, generated three important Middle East developments – none of them conducting to the comprehensive peace the Obama administration has been striving for: Hamas is preparing to go to the next, expanded phase of its terror campaign which has already claimed four Israel lives; Egypt and Syria are patching up their quarrel and the two terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hizballah, are crowing.
Fatah officials and the Egyptian Arab League secretary put all the blame for the talks collapsing on the Netanyahu government's refusal to extend the West Bank building freeze.
Defense minister Ehud Barak spoke of a 50-50 chance of a deal on the settlements and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called on the settlers to exercise restraint.
Otherwise there is no indication of Israel's next step on this issue – any more than on Iran's nuclear weapons drive and the Hizballah buildup. debkafile reports that the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration have reached secret regional understandings that include a partial moratorium allowing for new construction in certain places.
Jerusalem expects Washington to lean hard on the Palestinians and their Arab allies to leave the door open for talks to resume within the space of the coming critical year.
Binyamin Netanyahu's opponents claim that the US is squeezing him hard to give in to Mahmoud Abbas' ultimatum, a claim debkafile's Washington sources say is completely unfounded. On the contrary, the White House and the Prime Minister's office are of one mind that so long as the Palestinian leader holds to his demand for a total standstill on building on the West Bank and Jerusalem for the duration of negotiations, Netanyahu is entitled to stay quiet on his intentions either way.
The breakdown of the talks was widely predicted by every seasoned Middle East hand. Many political observers therefore wonder: What was the point of filling the air waves for 26 days with the extravagantly upbeat phrases heard from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak calling the process "a historic opportunity for peace in the region?" The letdown was inevitable and leaves none of them looking good.
Perhaps the last word has not been said. Washington may go back for another try to restart the talks in a few weeks or months, but the process has already had a negative impact in the region, hardening the moderates and strengthening the rejectionists:
1. Israel is bracing for a fresh round of terror in the light of Hamas threats;
2. The feuding Fatah and Hamas are talking again, a process that will force Mahmoud Abbas into continuing to harden his posture;
3. Egypt and Israel have drawn apart on the Palestinian issue;
4. Cairo and Damascus have begun talks to bury the hatchet.
All four developments are a triumph for the Middle East radical camp and strengthen the hands of Hizballah and Hamas.