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For Middle East peace talks, hope springs eternal but skepticism remains

After two weeks of inconclusive face-to-face negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are taking a short break before they reconvene next week at the United Nations with President Barack Obama.

So where do things stand? We offer five reasons for hope and an equal number to remain dubious.

They're still talking.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas n has repeatedly threatened to walk out of negotiations if the Israelis don't agree to extend the moratorium on new settlement construction. He hasn't yet.

"We all know there is no alternative to peace through negotiations, so we have no alternative other than to continue those efforts," Abbas said Thursday.

Then again: They haven't gotten anywhere so far, so why should this time be different than any other attempt during the last four decades?

A hardliner softens?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu n, who within the last year has said he will support a Palestinian state, signaled that he might consider a modified extension to the settlement freeze.

Israel will not build "tens of thousands of housing units that are in the pipeline, but we will not freeze the lives of the residents," Netanyahu said earlier this week.

Then again: Netanyahu fears the collapse of his coalition of right-wingers, who refuse to budge on their determination to continue building in the West Bank.

Compromise on the table.

If Netanyahu wants to compromise, he has something real to consider, thanks to a proposal for a three-month extension of the settlement freeze put forward by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak m and President Obama. The three-month extension could buy both sides time to agree on future borders.

Then again: Netanyahu's office issued this statement on Thursday:

"The position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the time period allotted in advance for the West Bank settlement freeze is well known, and hasn't changed," according to a statement Thursday from his office.

Location, location, location.

The talks have moved from one symbolically significant venue to the next. First, the White House, which gave important credibility to each side. Then to Egypt, site of previous fruitful negotiations and a country which has a peace treaty with Israel. Finally, to Jerusalem, the holy city that each side hopes to claim as a capital, where Abbas was hosted in Netanyahu's private residence.

Then again: People wouldn't be making so much fuss over where they're taking place if there was some real progress being made.

"If the sides were serious, they would have had discrete negotiations to agree on all of the issues. This is public diplomacy without real negotiations," said Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Bombs keep falling, but....

Despite the efforts of Hamas, the designated terrorist organization that has control of Gaza, to undermine the talks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have not pushed away from the table.

Then again: Every explosion is a reminder that Abbas has no control over a significant sector of the Palestinian population.

Information from the Associated Press, the Guardian, BBC, Slate and Haaretz was used in this report. Bill Duryea can be reached at duryea@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8770.

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For Middle East peace talks, hope springs eternal but skepticism remains 09/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 12:07am]

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