Tired of the jokes about his wife, perhaps, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson last week cracked a gag of his own. Marking an end to more than 100 hours of talks, he said that the province would be lobbying for the inclusion of negotiating as an Olympic sport in time for the London games of 2012 — and that Northern Ireland would win the gold medal.

Not so fast. There could be stiff competition, at least in the endurance event. One hundred hours might seem like a marathon to Mr. Robinson, as must the long Good Friday process that preceded it. But for Palestinians and Israelis, that is little more than a warm-up. They have been involved in peace talks, one way or the other, since the Oslo accords of 1993. And while the people of Northern Ireland have a prize to show for all that effort — namely, peace — the negotiators of West Asia are still, 17 years on, empty-handed. If Mr. Robinson and Martin McGuinness have earned their gold, the Israelis and Palestinians surely deserve a medal for fruitless stamina.

And now they are poised to submit themselves to another round, with February 20 pencilled in the diary. This time, just as beach volleyball made its debut at the Atlanta Olympics, the organisers are introducing a new format. The two sides will not sit across a table, but rather in two separate rooms. The referee — the role taken by that hero of Good Friday 1998, the former U.S. Senator and now West Asia envoy, George Mitchell — will shuttle between the two. If the Israelis say “no”, Mr. Mitchell will knock on the Palestinian door and say that they said “maybe”. If the Palestinians say that the Israelis can go to hell, the perennially patient Mr. Mitchell will relay the message as: “They’ve asked for more detail.” Think of a couple who refuse to speak to each other, communicating instead through their children. “Tell her, I need to use the car tonight.” You might call it infantile. In international diplomacy, they call it proximity talks.

After 17 years of disappointment, it makes sense to approach this latest effort with our expectations somewhere below the sub-basement. It is not certain the talks will begin at all: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is currently consulting Arab and other foreign leaders on whether he should drop his insistence that there should be no talks until Israel agrees to freeze all settlement-building in the occupied West Bank. The message he is getting is that he should accept Israel’s partial and temporary moratorium on building, and talk.

At the heart of Mr. Abbas’s dilemma is a judgment on his Israeli counterpart. Is Binyamin Netanyahu serious about peace, or is he doing the bare minimum to keep Washington off his back? One nugget of conventional wisdom holds that while the Palestinians want a deal but not negotiations, the Israelis want negotiations but not a deal. In this view, Mr. Netanyahu is happy to go through the motions of talks — so that he can boast to world opinion that he is doing the right thing — just so long as he does not have to do anything difficult. That way he can preserve his rightwing coalition, which would surely unravel at the first whiff of compromise. Others say that Bibi is sincere, even impatient for an agreement. Which view is right? Even those who work for the Israeli Prime Minister are not sure. One official tells me he does not yet know if his boss is Yitzhak Shamir — the former Likud Prime Minister and human roadblock who made a career out of saying no — or Ariel Sharon, the Likud leader who eventually seemed determined to resolve the conflict until he was fatefully struck down by a stroke.

In the Shamir column stands Mr. Netanyahu’s entire past record as a hawk who has repeatedly opposed peace efforts. His rhetoric does not suggest he has undergone the profound, internal shift that seemed to have moved Mr. Sharon or, more visibly, Bibi’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Indeed, at the recent Herzliya security conference, Mr. Netanyahu pointedly contrasted himself with Mr. Sharon, who had used that same forum to announce his Gaza withdrawal plan, pledging his loyalty instead to “the land of our forefathers”. The message seemed clear: Mr. Sharon gave up land, I will keep hold of it.

Sure, he has agreed a freeze on some construction, but there are plenty of holes in that ice: East Jerusalem is not included, nor are non-residential buildings, nor is construction already under way. And even this limited “moratorium” expires in September, with Bibi giving no hint that it will be extended. Meanwhile, at his side remains a Foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who not only continues to make thuggish threats to Israel’s neighbours but recently declared that “if a Palestinian state is established, there will be no Israel”. None of this will encourage the Palestinians that, when they sit down for talks, in the room next door will be a man ready to make peace.

And yet, just on Tuesday Mr. Netanyahu said at a lunch for European ambassadors, “Test me.” I am told the Americans have been saying the same thing to Mr. Abbas and his team: you’ll be surprised how far Bibi is prepared to go.

This “Sharon” view of Mr. Netanyahu notes his belated endorsement of the two-state solution. Belated, yes; begrudging, most certainly; but it still came at a political cost, antagonising his rightwing base. They make similar noises about the settlement moratorium: for all its limitations, Hillary Clinton was right to say that it was “unprecedented”. No Israeli leader had done anything like it before. For those who doubt its reality, talk to the Palestinian construction workers who, in a bitter paradox, are angry that they can no longer get work building homes for Jewish settlers. As for that Herzliya speech, other observers spotted that when Bibi listed those places that constituted Israel’s true “heritage”, he named none in occupied territory.

But surely the fact that late last year Israel announced further building in East Jerusalem undermines any claim that Mr. Netanyahu is serious about peace? Not so, say his defenders. It merely showed that Bibi is now drawing a distinction between those lands he intends to keep and those he is ready to give up, an implicit end to the dream of Greater Israel, in which Israel would keep the lot.

The Prime Minister’s allies say that in person he is a different man from the brash, wheeler-dealer of his first, 1990s term. They describe a thoughtful person, always reading, determined to do more than merely keep “the seat warm”. They say he now wants to do what eluded his predecessors and come to an agreement.

It all sounds wonderful. The trouble is, as even his advocates confess, there is only the slimmest evidence for it: lots of warm words, very few concrete deeds. Which leaves the Palestinians with a choice. They can heed Mr. Mitchell when he says “Trust me” — and turn up at the proximity talks, waiting to hear what Bibi comes up with. Or, better, they can take Mr. Netanyahu at his word when he says “Test me” — and do more than wait. They should devise a strategy that will push the Israeli Prime Minister, forcing him to make good on all the talk. It will mean taking him by surprise with a move that requires a serious response. But do it: call his bluff.

One Palestinian insider says they are about to enter “a grey zone”, full of uncertainty. But the alternative is no talks at all. And, even after 17 years of frustration, that would be a disaster. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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