The United States and other Mideast mediators will gather next week in another effort to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process, but with little hope of even restarting direct negotiations let alone reaching a breakthrough on a two-state peace agreement.
The "Quartet" of mediators that includes the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations plans to meet Dec. 14 in Jerusalem, U.S. officials said.
The mood is decidedly pessimistic. Continued Israeli settlement expansion and the Palestinian attempts to win recognition as a state at the United Nations are souring the environment for progress. An added hurdle is the looming U.S. election season and the constraints it will put on the Obama administration to effectively pressure either side, particularly Israel, which enjoys strong support in Congress.
Officials said the quartet will confer separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and not bring them together in the same room. Their governments are supposed to present each other with detailed proposals on territory and security by late January. The Quartet timeline was devised to reach a two-state agreement by the end of next year and sidestep a series of contentious U.N. votes over Palestinian statehood.
But that benchmark looks to be in serious jeopardy, further eroding whatever confidence may be left in the roadmap.
Under the Quartet plan, the two sides should have been engaged in face-to-face talks since October, and officials say the U.S. is blocking a Palestinian attempt to essentially negotiate the parameters of a peace deal by proxy.
Washington has adamantly argued that no progress is possible unless the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate directly.
The disconnect may be over the process, but it also reflects the different aspirations Palestinians and Israelis attach to the peace process.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' government fears being bogged down in useless talks while new Jewish housing units continue to be approved in lands it is seeking for the future Palestine; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government frets over making indirect concessions without any guarantee the Palestinians will accept Israel's Jewish character and compromise on refugees and other issues.
The informal discussions both sides have had with the Quartet have produced no new ideas regarding borders or security, officials said. They are expecting any written proposals issued next month to be little more than a rehash of old arguments. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the diplomacy.
The Quartet delivered its roadmap on Sept. 23, just hours after Abbas presented the U.N. with the Palestinian bid for recognition as a state. The process before the U.N. Security Council has stalled for now, as the Palestinians lack the necessary support and Washington has promised to veto any resolution of independence anyhow.
But the Palestinians won recognition in a parallel effort in October at the U.N.'s cultural agency, triggering congressional legislation to restrict funds to the organization. The Obama administration fears the Palestinians could win similar votes in the U.N.'s specialized agencies for health, atomic energy and intellectual property, forcing the U.S. to cut off money to those bodies and weakening American influence in key arenas of global decision-making.
Avoiding such a situation has been central to the U.S. strategy. The Palestinians have agreed to hold off on any further statehood requests through January, officials said. But the unlikelihood of any concrete progress next month could lead Abbas' government to rethink its suspension.
Complicating what Washington can do is the November presidential election, and Republican efforts to woo the small but significant Jewish vote by highlighting Obama's oft strained relations with Netanyahu and painting his administration as anti-Israel.
The White House and State Department have rejected those assertions, but don't want to provide ammunition to critics by pressuring the Jewish state too hard or openly clashing with its leaders.
It's unclear what the administration gained in May when Obama endorsed Israel's pre-1967 borders with agreed land swaps as the basis for a two-state solution, and Netanyahu defiantly rejected his terms.
Even with the Palestinians, U.S. pressure options appear limited.
The administration has resisted efforts in Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians, arguing that much of the money goes into security training that protects Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. interests. And, as the administration champions democratic change throughout the Arab world, penalizing the Palestinians for what is essentially a peaceful challenge to Israel would be extremely unpopular in the region and possibly play into the hands of extremists.