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The Farce of Middle East Peace Talks

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For those with a keen interest in contemporary Middle East history, there's a new spectacle coming to a conflict zone near you.

On September 2nd, the production company that brought you Oslo, Wye River, Camp David and Annapolis will release a brand new blockbuster sequel to the so-called Middle East Peace Talks.

Simply titled Resumption of Direct Negotiations, the production boasts a star-studded cast including Benjamin Netanyahu in the role of king, Mahmoud Abbas as the pauper, George Mitchell as the court jester, King Abdullah II as the novice, Tony Blair as the fool savant, Barak Obama as the compassionate Jedi negotiator, and Hosni Mubarak as the comic relief.

The Middle East Peace Process has in the past two decades fallen to ridicule, disbelief, irreverence and irrelevance. In 1990, George H. Bush, the then-president, promised Arab leaders that he would bring all sides to the negotiating table and create a "peace process" in exchange for their help during Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm.

They were more than eager. While the Palestinians and Israelis acknowledged one another and sat down face to face for the first time, the peace process in its early stages was big on promises and hope.

It appeared then that something could finally be done to resolve the decades-old conflict. But, as is the case in the Middle East, rhetoric is cheap; little of substance was done to bridge the gaps, to gain Palestinians their inalienable rights while giving Israelis a sense of security.

By the late 1990s, with Hamas growing in strength and Israeli elections producing new governments unwilling to honor the agreements of the old, the peace process began to unravel.

In 1998, Bill Clinton pressured Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to sign and implement the Wye River Memorandum as the peace process appeared on the verge of collapse. However, within months both sides accused the other of failing to live up to the agreements. To this day, the agreements have been unfulfilled.

When Clinton hosted Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 (a nod to 1978's Egypt-Israel treaty), he did make significant gains only to watch those sink in the quagmire that was Ariel Sharon's election and Intifada II.

In 2002, the Arab League proposed the Arab Peace Initiative (API) to Israel as its forces lay siege to Jenin and other occupied territories. Urging Israel implement UN resolutions on withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, the API was largely ignored by Israel and the US.

In 2003, as George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq, there was consensus in Washington and Tel Aviv that removing Saddam Hussein from power would make the Palestinians more malleable and therefore increase the prospect of a final settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Emboldened by his mission accomplished in Iraq, Bush announced that he supported the creation of a Palestinian state. Many in the Arab World were excited by Bush's brave position. However, the realities on the ground in Occupied Palestine made it an extremely untenable idea to create a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, criss-crossing various Israeli road restrictions and settlements.

In fact, since the Oslo peace process began in the early 1990s, the number of Israeli settlers had increased by tens of thousands, with a marked rise in the number of new Israeli settlements and/or extensions.

In 2005, with little progress seen in what was then termed Road Map to Peace, Bush announced that a Palestinian state would be created by 2009. This never materialized.

In 2006, the Bush administration hosted the Annapolis Peace Conference with much fanfare. It was a predictable disaster.

Since Obama became president, the American narrative on peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis has moved away from negotiating concrete measures forward; now the challenges is to actually get the two sides to even agree to sit down to direct, face-to-face diplomacy. That is an incredible testament to how the peace process itself has unravelled to pre-1993 levels.

Obama has dispatched Mitchell to bridge differences between the two sides, but the once-powerful negotiator has returned to Washington empty-handed time and again after failing to convince the Israelis that halting, or even postponing, settlement construction was necessary to build confidence with the Palestinians.

In fact, there has been almost no movement on the issue of halting settlement building; the settlements are themselves - according to the UN - illegal under international law.

And yet international law is not only broken in Occupied Palestine, but ignored as a foundation for future talks.

There is little hope the "talks" will produce anything substantial beyond a photo opportunity designed to deceive the audience that something concrete is being done.

Clues to this are to be found in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement of the talks. She made no mention of settlements, a crucial first step for the Palestinians, and nothing at all about pre-1967 borders.

Instead, as Mitchell later explained, Israel and the Palestinians would have to set their own terms for the negotiations. Kind of like the lion and the hare sitting down in a one-on-one.

That's preposterous. Israel is mighty and under no pressure whatsoever to concede anything to the Palestinians. This becomes doubly more dangerous when one considers that a super right-wing government which has entertained the idea of expelling Palestinians to Jordan, or having Palestinian-Israelis swear an oath of allegiance to the "Jewish State", sits in power in Tel Aviv.

The US State Department says its top diplomats would step in with a bridging proposal should the need arise. Has there been no need for a strong and determined US involvement in peace talks in the past two decades?

Democrats in the mid-2000s accused Bush of abandoning the peace process, but now with Obama in the White House, the US seems to be withdrawing any substantial role it could have played.

Most Arab diplomats will admit that a peace process cannot bear fruit unless there is specific and stubborn US presence in negotiations. They believe that only the US can pressure Israel to make difficult, yet necessary, concessions.

As the US prepares to leave the parties to determine the scale and scope of their negotiations, these talks will fail as others have done so painfully.

So, yes, the upcoming peace talks will be a spectacle of Hollywood proportions meant to entertain and provide little other value. The joke, unfortunately, is on the audience.

And the Palestinians.