Despair as Abbas and Netanyahu to meet

The slaying of four Israelis, and the absence of Saudi Arabia at the table, complicates the already fragile effort to reopen dialogue.

epa02307883 Israeli Border Police detain Palestinian construction workers in the ultra-Orthodox 'settlement' of Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem on 30 August 2010 as they carry out an identity sweep on workers in this neighborhood where the Jerusalem municipality intends to build an additional 1,600 housing units. Israelis and Palestinians return to 'direct talks' in Washington DC on September 2 where the most immediate core issue will be if Israel continues with its construction 'freeze' in the West Bank and Jerusalem.  EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

WASHINGTON // Despite the elegant location and what promises to be excellent cuisine, Middle East observers already expect Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to be prickly dinner guests for Barack Obama, the US president.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders will break bread together for the first time in more than a year and a half before direct peace talks begin here tomorrow morning. But even before the highly anticipated first meeting, much of the talk surrounding the negotiations already seems focused on who should carry the blame for their eventual failure. Yet amid the preponderance of pessimism, the presence of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, and King Abdullah II of Jordan at tonight's White House dinner could lend some much-needed regional ballast.

Although those countries' appearance, if not their direct participation, is crucial to the talk's legitimacy in the wider Arab world, the absence of Saudi Arabia, which has been an essential component of past efforts that have brushed with success, could further complicate the negotiations. "The dinner sort of has the symbolism that Arab states are involved," said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. "I think what Arab states will do is to provide the proper context, the proper environment for the negotiations to take place."

Both Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu bring to Washington pet concerns that are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve without regional cooperation, Mr Muasher said. For the Israelis, security guarantees are expected to become the primary objective of the ensuing negotiations. Given Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support for its militant Islamist client organisations Hamas and Hizbollah, Israel will need strong signs from its Arab neighbours beyond the Palestinians that they are committed to opposing Iranian belligerence.

For his part, Mr Abbas's leadership position with regard to the Palestinians is already fragile enough, and he will need political "cover" from the rest of the Arab world to make the painful concessions that an effective peace deal with Israel will require. The Arab League has already given its blessing to this round of direct negotiations, but Mr Abbas will need an even greater show of support if he is to burnish his governance credentials over those of Hamas, his Islamist rivals in the Gaza Strip.

"The curious thing is guess whose not coming to dinner: it's the Saudis," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a member of the United States' National Security Council under Bill Clinton, the former US president. Mr Katulis and Mr Muasher noted that Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and therefore shuns major appearances with Israeli leaders, had been a major player in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a promising proposal that many Arab states would like to see revived.

Tomorrow night's dinner guests would probably disagree, but Egypt's and Jordan's importance to the peace process has diminished since they became the first two Arab states to recognise Israel several decades ago. "I have found the whole way that the Obama administration conducts this peace process to be a bit anachronistic," said Michelle Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace of the administration's continued reliance on Egypt and Jordan as peace-brokers."

Syria's close relationship with Hamas and Hizbollah, along with its improving ties to Israel, has become a better-placed negotiator in a Middle East that is increasingly beholden to such non-Arab powers as Iran while Saudi Arabia is a powerful player in the larger Sunni Arab world.