Déjà-vu all over again is an old John Prescott joke, but it seemed like an appropriate headline for my latest article for Progress about the Middle East, as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations sit down to dinner this evening in the ornate splendour of the eighth floor of the State Department.
Defying high expectations to provide Palestinians with the dignity of statehood, or Israelis with security and safety, is not going to be a challenge facing this latest diplomatic effort. Indeed, simply keeping the parties talking for longer than the short few weeks that the last abortive attempt managed in September 2010 will be seen by some as success. And that was before the tumult of the Arab Spring, including the chaos in Egypt and carnage in Syria. For US secretary of state John Kerry, success will mean resolving the core paradox between the negotiating room and the facts on the ground, keeping the process secret, and managing to keep the parties talking when the inevitable bumps in the road occur.
Secretary Kerry cannot be faulted for the personal vigour with which he has pursued this issue since taking office in January, working closely with Tony Blair. From Washington to Rome to Jerusalem, the two have repeatedly debated, discussed and decided how the old challenge of matching the aspirations of the negotiating room with the reality on the ground can be matched.
So what reason is there to believe this time may be different? The millions of Israelis and Palestinians, who would be the principal beneficiaries of any deal and who remain committed to a two-state solution but have lost faith in their political leaders, will not be sitting by the television waiting for a breaking news whoosh to indicate a deal.
That is no bad thing. Low-key talks, with the different parties not testing their ideas in the media, may well frustrate the media and those from the international community not in the room, but could probably be the best way to ensure the full potential of two viable states is realised.
Today’s meeting is therefore a welcome start. Only when we see the talks happening at a leadership level between prime minister Netanyahu and President Abbas should we start to think this isn’t just another episode in a long-running serial with a plot we’re all too familiar with. But in the meantime we should neither allow the cynicism of past failed attempts nor the weight of expectation to derail what will always be a very delicate starting point.