JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian leaders will sit down at the State Department on Thursday for the first Middle East peace talks in 20 months, with almost nothing agreed on beyond the meeting itself, and widespread skepticism in the region that peace is anywhere close at hand.
President Barack Obama has confounded skeptics by maneuvering a reluctant Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into direct negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The State Department session is expected to dwell on schedules and agendas, however, not the substance of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The talks also face a ticking time bomb in the Sept. 26 expiration of Netanyahu's 10-month moratorium on construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu has declined to commit to extending the freeze; the Palestinians say they'll bolt if he doesn't.
In a fresh challenge, assailants killed four Israelis Tuesday night at the Kiryat Arba settlement near the flash point West Bank city of Hebron. An armed wing of Hamas, a militant Palestinian group that opposes the peace talks, claimed responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks on Israeli civilians in recent years.
Israel vowed retribution for the killings, which seemed designed to undercut this week's diplomacy.
Former U.S. officials, Middle East diplomats and analysts say the negotiations aren't doomed to failure but that to succeed, Obama and his team will have to intervene more forcefully than they have to date to shape the terms of the talks.
The United States, they said, will have to consider its own "bridging proposals" to span the wide gaps between Israelis and Palestinians over the status of Jerusalem, Israel's security needs, the fate of Palestinian refugees and other issues.
"We're going to know whether this process is going to succeed or fail fairly quickly," said Amjad Atallah of the Washington-based New America Foundation. "It looks bad at the outset. It can change on a dime."
There's a consensus among the Palestinian elite that coming to the peace talks without a clearer sense of what's on the table is a mistake, said Atallah, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team.
In Israel, reports in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot and another Hebrew daily, Maariv, concluded that the "prevailing assessment" was that the summit in Washington would be "ceremonial and not substantive."
U.S. officials, without giving specifics, said they'd take an active role in the negotiations.
"We will be a full participant," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We also recognize that there will be value during the course of this process in having the leaders themselves, you know, get together on a regular basis."
Netanyahu and Abbas are widely expected to announce after the State Department session Thursday that they'll talk again, in the Middle East, in mid-September.
Their meeting, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will be preceded Wednesday by one-on-one meetings with Obama at the White House. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan also will meet with Obama.
While Abbas is at the helm of a divided Palestinian leadership, Netanyahu rules a right-wing coalition, many of whose members oppose limits on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Even as Netanyahu flew to Washington on Tuesday with the message that he's ready and willing to make compromises, members of his political party were in the city to push a different agenda.
Danny Dayan, a leader of the lobby for the settler movement in Israel, was meeting Jewish and congressional leaders in Washington to convince them of the importance of expanding Israel's settlements. Palestinians see the settlements as a key impediment to the peace talks, as they're built on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has refused to give a direct answer on whether he'll extend the freeze. Over the weekend he said he'd made no promises about extending it. An official close to him, however, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, said in Jerusalem that the premier was examining "options and compromises" to respond to the Palestinian position.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that if Israel "issued one building tender after September 26, we will consider the talks over."
Much of Netanyahu's coalition supports Dayan, however, and has made it clear that it isn't interested in the sort of complete freeze the Palestinians seek.
Writing in Yediot Ahronot, prominent Israeli journalist Shimon Shiffer said that Netanyahu was leaving for the United States "fully aware that his partners in the government are not prepared to accede to the Palestinians' demand that the construction freeze be extended."
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who's also with the New America Foundation, noted that powerful antagonists who can affect the talks, such as Israel's neighbor Syria or Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, won't be in Washington this week. "The warring parties aren't really in the room," he said.
The United States has set a timeline of one year for this round of talks.
Frenkel, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Jerusalem.
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