By inviting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington to relaunch direct talks on September 2, the US government has opened the latest act in the farce of Middle East peace negotiations. So far devoid even of a script, this piece of theatre risks irrelevance outside of the US midterm elections.

For Barack Obama, whose foreign policy record amounts to little beyond a premature Nobel prize, the talks are a public relations feat. His officials only succeeded by leaning heavily on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The hint of a one-year time limit is a bone tossed in his direction; inconclusive, never-ending discussions could do away with what little authority he retains.

Not much is likely to come of the talks. Israel’s notional willingness to put every issue on the table is a fig leaf for continuing construction and evictions in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. What happens when a partial moratorium expires in September is itself left open for negotiation. Arab public opinion, understandably, takes no interest in the talks.

More discouraging yet is the lack of a firm agenda for the talks. US statements carefully declined to define expectations for a final outcome, though it is clear (as recognised by the 2000 Clinton parameters and the 2002 Arab League peace plan) what it must involve: a Palestinian state within 1967 borders subject to marginal land swaps, and a renunciation of most Palestinian refugees’ right of return, against fair compensation. As much is implied by the Middle East Quartet’s more direct, if coded, statement. But these talks being a US show, the director’s seat will have America’s name on it, not the Quartet’s.

The US has no excuse for abdicating leadership. It should offer its blueprint for a solution and firm up the one-year deadline to make it clear it will not let talks drag on beyond that point. And it should demand from both parties a commitment to take any final agreement back to their respective peoples for a referendum. That is a riskier gamble. But it would help to sidestep obstructionists on all sides – and it is the only way to bring Hamas on board.

All parties should prefer a negotiated outcome – not least Israel, whose wobbly international legitimacy is its greatest security risk. State-building under way under Salam Fayyad, Palestinian prime minister, could soon put Palestine in a position to aim for a declaration of statehood without Israeli agreement. The final curtain for the theatrics may not be far away.

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