News Analysis: Peace talks show movement — to London, not toward peace

JERUSALEM — The Middle East peace talks could use some of the luck of the Irish.

Hoping to build on the success of the recent agreement to resolve the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, British Prime Minister Tony Blair succeeded this week in getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to agree publicly to participate in a round of meetings May 4 in London.

But significant doubts remain as to whether the London talks — at which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will meet separately with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders — will achieve any meaningful progress in the long-deadlocked peace process.

Blair's success in getting the two sides to announce publicly that they would attend the London meetings cut little ice with some of the more cynical pundits among Israelis and Palestinians.

These observers noted wryly that Netanyahu seized on the idea of going to London with an alacrity that seemed to take Blair himself aback.

The Israeli premier announced his willingness Sunday night during his joint news conference with Blair — even before his guest had the chance to meet with Arafat.

For Netanyahu, these observers suggested, London was an opportunity to evince more movement without progress, more talks without conclusive resolutions.

The media-savvy Israeli leader will likely try to turn international coverage of the event to his advantage, emphasizing again and again to reporters his readiness, as he said Sunday, "to go anywhere" in pursuit of peace.

For Arafat, in the words of one Palestinian pundit, there was little choice but to respond favorably to Blair's invitation when the two met Monday.

Blair was careful during his talks in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip to play a supportive role in the ongoing American mediation effort.

Indeed, while he will serve as host of the London meetings, Albright will mediate the political discussions.

As British premier and with his country currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union, Blair has supported Washington's efforts — not trying to upstage them, as some of his E.U. colleagues would prefer.

In this vein, the British leader made it clear that his suggestion that the parties come to London had been fully coordinated with Washington in advance.

His own possible participation, or that of his foreign secretary, remains uncertain at this point.

Only if Albright's talks produce a breakthrough would a four-way summit be held, the British premier said.

If that does happen, the British and E.U. focus would be on the economic aspects of the peace effort, leaving the Americans to work on the political and military aspects.

The European Union, which has been the largest foreign donor to the peace process, has long sought an increased role in Middle East peacemaking.

The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly called for a greater European role in the peace process, with several officials repeatedly charging that the United States is not an honest broker.

Israel has maintained that the European Union would be biased in favor of Palestinian demands. This stance has prompted some E.U. officials to remind Israel that Europe represents the Jewish state's largest export market — and that E.U. interests should be given their due.

A clear display of European sentiment toward Israel — and why Israel would like to keep E.U. officials out of the peace process — emerged this week from the Spanish island of Majorca. After two days of meetings, ministers from 11 European and African nations bordering on the Mediterranean called on Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank and to stop building settlements on Arab-owned land.

The choice of London as the stage for the next round of peace talks may indeed represent something of a concession to the European request for greater involvement in the peace process.

But wherever the talks are held, the question remains as to whether anything substantial will emerge from them.

Since his announcement that he would gladly attend the talks, Netanyahu has been doing his best to dampen expectations.

And the U.S. State Department, when it confirmed Monday that Albright would mediate the London sessions, reiterated its familiar catch phrase that it would be up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to make the difficult decisions for peace.

The State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said the meetings would be held to determine whether an American set of proposals "can provide a basis for a breakthrough."

U.S. officials have drawn up a proposal that reportedly calls for Israel to redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in tandem with Palestinian moves to live up to their security commitments.

Some observers claim to detect a softening in the Israeli Cabinet's long-standing resolve not to cede more than 9 percent of the West Bank.

According to the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, Netanyahu might be ready to give 11 percent — thus crossing the double-digit threshold and approaching the American proposal.

But the Palestinian position, made clear during Arafat's talks with Blair, is that 13 percent is the barest acceptable minimum — and only if it is followed by another Israeli redeployment by year's end.

Israel has until now said that any additional West Bank redeployments must be part of the final-status negotiations, which Netanyahu has been stating for months he would like to see begin as soon as possible.

Arafat wants Washington to "go public" with its plan — that is, to submit it formally to the parties and to world opinion in advance of the London talks. But Arafat stopped short of making that his condition for attendance.

Given the wide gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions — gaps that have been in place for a year — it is hard to be optimistic about what will emerge from London.

In an effort to tilt the odds in the peacemakers' favor, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was slated to visit the region later this week.

Reflecting the urgency of his mission, which failed in several recent tries to break the deadlock, Ross was expected to be accompanied this time by Martin Indyk, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Palestinian officials found a receptive ear when they sought to stress to Blair on Monday that continued stalemate can only bring more violence.

Blair responded, publicly and in the talks, that this was the Northern Irish experience precisely.

While he was wary of making too close an analogy with the situation in Northern Ireland, which may now be on the road to resolution, he did warn all the parties that the absence of progress, in the Middle East as in Ulster, spells regression.