RAMALLAH // Ramallah's normally bustling streets were conspicuously quiet yesterday, as unseasonably warm weather and a long day of fasting took their toll. There was no discernible excitement over the announcement that Palestinians and Israelis will hold a first round of direct talks next month in Washington. From restaurant owners to labourers, the news was greeted with one large shrug of the shoulders.
Peter Nasser, proprietor of the upscale Azure restaurant, said the Palestinian Authority is too weak to negotiate with Israel. "It depends on foreign donations to function and the leadership could not resist pressure to enter into negotiations," Mr Nasser said. "But the negotiations will lead nowhere and the status quo will simply continue." "Nothing" was the even more succinct answer offered by Mohammed, 24, a worker on one of the many new office buildings springing up around Ramallah. "It's a joke."
Except for Fatah, the political party of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the news that talks would begin September 2 was greeted with a similar lack of fervour by rival Palestinian political factions. Abbas accepted on Friday the invitation of the Quartet - the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN - to begin talks.
Hamas vowed yesterday that neither it nor the Palestinian people will "abide by the outcome of these meaningless negotiations". It said Abbas's willingness to talk was simply "submission to the US", a position echoed by Islamic Jihad. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also criticised the talks. The front said the "Quartet's statement means implicit legalisation of settlements" and accepting the statement would mean "abandoning international resolutions and even the Arab Peace Initiative".
The Palestinian People's Party, meanwhile, denounced Abbas's decision as one that would lead only to "further fiasco". The political opposition and popular apathy reflect the widespread lack of faith Palestinians have that these negotiations will be conducted in good faith under a neutral mediator. Some Israelis, too, seem equally unconcerned. Israeli news is dominated by yet another corruption scandal, this one about the choice of successor to head the Israeli army.
"The general feeling in Israel is a lack of optimism or even any sense that this is important in the midst of summer heat and scandals surrounding the new army chief," Hillel Schenker, an Israeli journalist, said. Israelis feel that the Palestinian and Israeli positions are simply too far apart to be overcome at the moment, Mr Schenker said. "There is a limit to what the Palestinians can accept, and I don't think Benjamin Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister] and his administration is ready to really move forward."
Nevertheless, Mr Schenker saw some cause for optimism. "I don't think the talks will be allowed to fail the way Camp David collapsed. I am optimistic that the Americans and the Quartet are ready to push the sides closer," he said. The consequences of failure could be "tremendous", especially for the Palestinian leadership, Mr Schenker said. George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst, agreed. "The Palestinian Authority cannot bear another failed round of negotiations, and failure could lead to its collapse. Abbas has been prevailed upon to grant US crisis management another lease on life," Mr Giacaman said. "But there is no partner on the Israeli side and the PA's future is highly insecure."
Mr Hasser would welcome that outcome. He said he did not believe the two-state solution was viable. He said he is not worried that the talks will fail. That would simply maintain the status quo, he said. "Before you can solve a problem, you have to diagnose it properly," said the 30-year-old restaurateur. "The problem here is that there are two people fighting over a piece of land, and the strongest party believes it is better than the other. It's at root a racist problem and can only be solved when that is understood."