JERUSALEM — With a diplomatic shove from the United States, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials soon--probably Sunday--will conduct face-to-face, official talks on the Mideast peace process for the first time in months.
While that alone might be reason for optimism here, given the atmosphere of distrust that has enveloped the peace process, no one Friday was predicting a breakthrough. In fact, Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials all said they were unsure that sufficient progress could be made in coming weeks to put the long-stymied negotiations back on track.
"We could be looking toward a full collapse of the process, or we could have a full agreement, or anything in between," said a U.S. official involved. "It's tough to tell until at least the first meeting has been held."
That will probably occur Sunday, officials said. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai will lead the Israeli delegation; Mahmoud Abbas, a senior Palestinian official also known as Abu Mazen, is expected to head the Palestinian side.
The United States, playing the role of mediator, recently urged Israel and the Palestinians to meet directly to try to end the 16-month-old impasse in negotiations, saying their remaining differences could be resolved only in face-to-face talks.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other U.S. officials also have said repeatedly that the American mediation cannot continue indefinitely.
On the table at the meeting will be a package of U.S. proposals to revive the process, which calls on Israel to hand over control of another 13% of the West Bank to the Palestinians in exchange for specific Palestinian commitments to fight terrorism.
The Palestinians have publicly accepted this American plan but Israel has not, arguing that to do so would endanger its security.
Israeli officials now say they are close to acceptance.
Still, after months of frustration and mutual recrimination, it is far from certain that either side is willing to accommodate the other's concerns or to work together to resolve disputes.
The Palestinians say they are willing to meet with the Israelis--mainly to satisfy the Clinton administration--but will not agree to reopen discussion of the U.S. initiative, which falls far short of their goal of gaining control of about 40% of the West Bank at this stage of the peace process.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians hope that Israeli negotiators are "practicing saying one word. We hope they will say 'yes' to us and to the American proposals. Then we will work with them to find the mechanisms of implementation. But if they want to renegotiate the proposals, they'll be closing other doors."
Israeli officials, in turn, say their government is ready to accept the American initiative in principle but cannot do so without two final Palestinian concessions, each of which could scuttle the deal.
Israel has demanded that the Palestinians call together the Palestine National Council to cancel clauses in their national covenant that call for the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians insist that the changes have already been made--and detailed in a letter to the Americans--and that nothing further is required.
Meanwhile, to satisfy hard-liners in his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also seeking to create a new category of territory for about 3% of the land that Israel would cede to the Palestinians over 12 weeks. The remaining 10% would also be turned over at the same time.
In the proposed transition category, Israel would retain the right to veto construction projects as well as maintain control over security matters in those areas. The idea is to protect a dozen or more Jewish settlements that would be left isolated by the land transfer, Netanyahu aides say.
"We think they'll eventually see it as a choice of getting some of the land at this point or getting nothing," an Israeli official said. "If they take this 3% or 4% now, no matter how it'll be treated over the next few years, eventually it will be theirs completely."
Palestinians, at least so far, have said they will not discuss the idea.
The talks between Mordechai, a moderate, and Abbas are expected to be followed by at least one other meeting and perhaps more, officials said.
The Israelis hope that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat can be persuaded to take part, perhaps in the second session.
Israelis close to the talks also said they expect that Netanyahu will try to delay making any final decision on a West Bank hand-over until after the Israeli parliament begins its summer recess July 29. Lawmakers say it is unlikely that the parliament would convene in emergency session to try to mount a no-confidence vote in the government, thus giving Netanyahu some breathing room.