Last week Israelis and Palestinians held talks for the first time since September 2010. Back then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met at the White House, under bright lights and with great expectations, along with Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In a matter of weeks the talks failed-and Mr. Mubarak didn't last much longer himself. What to expect this time?
For starters, note that these talks-hosted in Amman by the Jordanian government-aren't even "negotiations." The Palestinians made clear that these were only discussions of whether negotiations are possible. The most one can hope for is that these exploratory talks extend for several more months or lead at some point to a Netanyahu-Abbas session. This is kicking the can down the road, to be sure, but that is a reasonably accurate way of describing the "peace process" anyway.
Whatever the hopes in Washington or European capitals, Israelis and Palestinians don't expect a breakthrough. Instead, they're focused on three elections: America's, the definite one; the Palestinian Authority's, scheduled for May 4; and Israel's, which Mr. Netanyahu may call later this year.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the question is whether the re-election of Barack Obama would harm his own chances. The ability to get along with Washington is a key asset in Israeli politics, and Israelis would worry about four more years of U.S.-Israeli tension. It is universally understood that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama don't get along. That might lead the Israeli prime minister to try for elections in the fall, before our own-though a decision on whether to bomb Iran's nuclear sites could also affect that timing.
In any event, no major concessions to the Palestinians are now in the cards. Why should Mr. Netanyahu risk destroying his coalition in a possible election year, when previous Israeli offers-especially in 2000 and 2008-were refused, and when he believes the White House doesn't have his back? And why take such risks when Mr. Abbas seems on the verge of inviting Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization, which would bring negotiations to a screeching halt anyway?
So for 2012, Mr. Netanyahu will maneuver with the Palestinians, calculate the timing of his own elections, hope a new face wins in Washington-and make one big decision: whether to hit Iran.
For Mr. Abbas, the possible Israeli elections are of little interest. He must have scant hope they will produce a more conciliatory government, for the right looks far stronger than the left. He knows the rise of Islamist parties in the "Arab Spring" has made most Israelis even more worried about any concessions that might affect their security.