The first direct peace talks in 20 months between Israeli and Palestinian leaders kick off Wednesday in Washington, but in reality the discussions have already begun. Even so, there are no prearranged deals on settlements or any other issue before the leaders sit down, the Israeli Embassy said Tuesday.
"We are coming to the table with no preconditions on any issue," embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled said on a conference call Tuesday. "We are certain that the issue of settlements, of this moratorium, will be on the table and discussed between the two leaders... with the hope that a solution, an exit, a formula can be found that will satisfy both sides, but only after it is brought to the table between them."
The settlements issue is the most pressing item on the agenda, because the current moratorium on building, put in place by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last year, is set to expire by the end of September. Without some new agreement on even a limited settlement freeze, analysts fear, the new talks could break down only weeks after they begin -- dealing a perhaps mortal blow to President Obama's Middle East ambitions.
Peled indicated that there was a deal to be worked out, and we've heard that a compromise is in the works that would expand exemptions for building in areas that are expected to fall on the Israeli side of the line after final borders are established.
But for now, the Israeli government is making clear that the settlement freeze in place, which the Palestinians have argued is not being strictly enforced, is not guaranteed to continue. Netanyahu is under pressure from members of his coalition to let the freeze expire.
"The latest moratorium that this government took about 10 months ago was a one-time gesture with the aim of jumpstarting the process," Peled said.
He also said that he was not aware of any ideas that the United States was bringing to the table to bridge gaps between the two sides and added that it was not the Obama administration's place to interject its own ideas into the process.
The Israelis are endorsing the one-year timeline announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell but believe the deadline shouldn't result in a hard stop to the process if it might take a little longer.
"We believe that a year should give us enough time to reach some sort of preliminary agreement. That's a realistic time frame but by no means a deadline," Peled said, adding that the date and format of future meetings after this week was all yet to be determined.
Mitchell, briefing reporters Tuesday morning at the White House, sidestepped the entire issue of settlements.
"Our position on settlements is well known, and it remains unchanged," he said. "We've always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations. As Secretary of State Clinton has said, as we move forward it's important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it."
The U.S. will play "an active and sustained role" in the process, but doesn't necessarily have to be present at every meeting, Mitchell said. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could meet about every two weeks from now on, with constant interactions at lower levels, he added.
As for Hamas, Mitchell said the militant group could participate in the process only after it committed to democracy and nonviolence. Although Mitchell has often compared Middle East negotiations to the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland, he said Tuesday that the comparison is not strictly accurate, even though military groups in Northern Ireland eventually did join talks.
"So, first, let me say they're very different. It's not useful to try to make direct comparisons because the participants, the circumstances, the situation, the timing are all very different," he said.
Meanwhile, administration officials have been preparing the ground all week. Mitchell's deputy David Hale, the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and the NSC's Dan Shapiro have been in the region while Mitchell, Clinton, and even Obama himself have been working the phones.
On Tuesday alone, Clinton met with Abbas, Netanyahu, former British prime minister and Middle East "Quartet" envoy Tony Blair, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit.
"We will be clarifying today where the parties stand in advance of the meetings that they'll have and the dinner they'll have at the White House tomorrow," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama will have bilateral meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. The five leaders and Blair will dine together that evening at the White House.
Then on Thursday, Netanyahu and Abbas's delegations will head over to the State Department for the formal sessions, hosted by Clinton.
If there's one word to describe the feelings about the talks throughout Washington, that word is skepticism. Experts across the political spectrum see the idea of a breakthrough as a long shot at best.
Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation, said that the White House itself had appropriately low expectations. "There's a good deal of healthy skepticism there."
New America senior fellow Daniel Levy said that the structure of the talks bodes poorly for the prospects of success. There are no terms of reference, hard realities about gaps on major issues are being ignored for now, and both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have domestic limitations and limited capacity to make a deal, he noted.
"There isn't an Obama-specific approach," said Levy. "We're seeing a very similar approach to what's been done in the past, obviously an approach that didn't deliver."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.