The Middle East peace process is so broken that the parties cannot even talk to each other. The best that can be hoped for is "proximity talks", in which the US special envoy George Mitchell shuttles between sides as a mediator. Before even that can happen, the Palestinians need assurances and clarifications from the United States - in effect, they're talking about what they will be allowed to talk about.
It seems a steep descent from the heady aspirations of a two-state solution within two years, the line that the Obama administration had been proposing. More modest goals may be far more realistic to start. As Mr Mitchell is uniquely qualified to understand from his work in Northern Ireland, the road to peace must be measured in small steps towards building trust. These steps often must be taken despite, not because of, provocations that grab headlines.
The historical injustices, intractable conflicts and deep levels of distrust in the Holy Land would make a stone weep. But it is a story that sounded too familiar to the people of Northern Ireland a little more than a decade ago. After hundreds of years of animosity and three decades of what ammounted to a civil war, Northern Ireland is just now finding stability. Events this past week have shown that the work is ongoing. Catholic and Protestant leaders have been deliberating over the selection of a justice minister after agreeing on Friday on the transfer of policing and judicial powers from London to Belfast.
An agreement on these issues was widely considered to be the culmination of the process that the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 put in place. Of course, Mr Mitchell helped broker that settlement. He is not reticent about drawing parallels between Northern Ireland and the Middle East peace process: chiefly, the deep enmities, the lack of early progress and the widely held perception that no solution was possible. Even after what appeared to have been a wasted year of efforts for Mr Mitchell, the bleak climate for peace has never daunted him before.
The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is right to be wary of this latest diplomatic gambit by the United States. He has been left out in the cold before after the Americans failed to pressure Israel on a real settlement freeze and pushed for an ill-advised delay of the Goldstone report on the Gaza war. There are also grave doubts about the current Israeli government's good faith. With firebrands like the foreign minister Avigdor Liebermen making statements in support of regime change in Syria, the argument could be made that peace isn't the first priority at present. With very few exceptions, members of the Likud Party have reaffirmed their goal to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank, at the expense of the Palestinians.
Mr Mitchell would concede that a breakthrough on a two-state solution is not possible if these hardline positions prevail. But in the years to come - and it is useless to pretend it will be less than years - talks between the two sides is the only way to narrow the gap between them.