|The Palestinian president says a freeze on settlements is needed to move talks on [GALLO/GETTY]
Over the last few days, the Middle East has witnessed diplomatic activity unprecedented in recent months, even years, aimed at breaking the deadlock in the "peace process" and defusing growing regional frustration with the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip.
Since the Obama administration expressed renewed interest in restarting the diplomatic process within a two-year/two-stage framework, Arab diplomats have held extensive consultations on how best to respond to the US initiative.
And Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, made his first visit to Cairo hoping for a breakthrough after Israel promised partial freeze on illegal settlement activities for a 10-month period.
However, Israel's refusal for a total freeze remains a major obstacle for renewing negotiations. The Palestinian president has made it clear that a comprehensive freeze is required to move ahead with the negotiations as stipulated in the international roadmap for peace laid out under the previous US administration.
Israel contends that settlement building in East Jerusalem and major settlement blocks should not hamper negotiations as it was unlikely to withdraw from these areas under "final settlement guarantees" from the previous US administration.
The Obama administration has made it clear it has no such guarantees are on record. Regardless, the Palestinians consider any such promises would be illegitimate and unfair and would further compromise the US role as a sponsor.
Overcoming the obstacles
The Obama administration is hoping to bridge the differences between Israelis and Palestinians by providing both parties with "letters of guarantees" to offset their fears.
Such diplomatic tools have been used by its predecessors, but while they succeeded in attaining diplomatic breakthroughs, they failed to bring about a political breakthrough.
The Obama administration is reportedly optimistic that beginning a two-year process in the beginning of its second year in office, and devising a two-stage negotiation - the first year on the basis of the 1967 borders in return for recognising Israel as a "Jewish state", and the second year to negotiate over Jerusalem, refugees and final status issues could bring about a comprehensive peace.
However, former US president Bill Clinton also started the peace process in his second year (1993), and spread it over five years. But he failed to attain peace during his last month in office in 2000, when his Camp David summit with Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat broke down and paved the way for the second Uprising in the occupied territories.
Deadlines are distractions?
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister and himself a settler in the occupied West Bank, argues that it is wrong to set deadlines and that the Obama administration should not raise false expectations and bring about bitter disappointment and violence.
He reckons the peace process should be open-ended, settlements must remain Israeli, Jerusalem be the "united eternal capital of Israel", and refugees be kept outside the "Jewish state". Period.
"If Israel does not take advantage of this sweeping Arab offer, the Arab Peace Initiative may very well be withdrawn"
Netanyahu holds very similar views but would not embarrass his US sponsors the way Lieberman does. Like his predecessors, Yitzhak Shamir (1991) and Ariel Sharon (2002), his objections will be made in the form of reservations on the US plan.
Netanyahu's cardinal card, however, is that deadlines are merely deadlines - not sacred and never final as Israel can stretch them as long it deems it necessary under the guise of "national security" - a claim Washington never dared question.
Going by experience, that has proven to be true. Over the last two decades, none of the important deadlines in the "peace process" were kept: not the five-year Oslo process; not the three-year Roadmap; not the one-year Annapolis process.
And the Palestinians were always blamed for it.
Expiration date needed
While it's profitable for Israel as the occupying power to squeeze compromises from the Palestinians living under occupation by stretching the process as much as possible, for the Palestinians putting an end to their suffering means ending the occupation.
Moreover, because of past experience with broken deadlines, the Palestinians insist that the settlement freeze must be permanent. And negotiations must be for a comprehensive agreement and the process needs to have a very limited expiration date. Only then could a diplomatic breakthrough lead to political breakthrough beyond false promises and vague guarantees.
"After a year in office, the dazzling [US] president seems all too ready to talk the talk, but not walk the walk"
Likewise, they argue that if Israel does not deliver the occupied land in return for the desired peace, the whole framework for negotiations will breakdown. After all this is the basis of the US/internationally sponsored peace process: land for peace.
More importantly, that is the cornerstone of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative where all Arab countries commit to full peace with Israel in return for full withdrawal from occupied Arab land and fair and negotiated settlement to the refugee question.
If Israel does not take advantage of this sweeping Arab offer that guarantees its existence and security within its internationally recognised borders, the Arab Peace Initiative may very well be withdrawn if not sooner, then certainly later.
Such a void would compromise all US guarantees and undermine any US diplomatic effort, leading to more of the same conflict, albeit more dangerously considering the widening areas of hotspots in the region.
President Barack Obama has framed the Palestinian question in the context of US national security and he is reportedly convinced by the arguments of the likes of former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Zibegniew Brzezinski, that the Israeli occupation of Palestine works against the US as it fights two wars (plus) in the region.
Since he called on Israel to ensure complete freeze from Cairo last spring, the president has turned a cold shoulder to Israeli leaders and remained adamant that freeze in needed to ensure the success of a two-state solution.
However, secretary of state Hillary Clinton's contention that a complete freeze was not a condition to resuming negotiations and praise of the Netanyahu government for partial freeze, have only muddied the waters and released all pressure off the Israelis to respect the US wish.
Worse, it seems the Obama administration has slowly but surely adopted Netanyahu's position on the need for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state", which predetermines the negotiations over the "right of return" for Palestinian refuges and compromises the civic and national rights of the one million Palestinians in Israel.
After a year in office, the dazzling president seems all too ready to talk the talk, but not walk the walk. Judging from what we know as facts, his diplomatic initiative (supported by secret promises) might pave the way for renewed negotiations, but in terms of substance, do not expect any major breakthrough.
However, it remains to be seen whether the US-Egypt intervention is meant to contain the potential exchange of prisoners by Israel for the return of a soldier being held in Gaza.