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By Ray Fleming

TALKS between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are due to be restarted next week. Well, not exactly talks -- more correctly, messages between the two sides which will be carried by the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

This technique, known as “proximity talks”, has sometimes worked in other diplomatic negotiations when the two sides are not ready to face each other. Although Washington is welcoming this progress, the reality is that it represents a weak face-saving alternative to the strong position on Middle East peace that President Obama took one year ago at the start of his presidency.

A positive aspect of this development is the Arab League's support for it which has enabled the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to put on ice his insistence that Israel must stop settlement building before any talks can begin. However, the Arab League's statement included a reference to these talks as a “last ditch” effort to facilitate the US's role in bringing about an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The prospects are not good. Although Israel will say it favours a two-state solution, its conditions make it very unlikely. On the Palestinian side there is the problem of Hamas's disinclination to participate -- hardly surprising given the cold-shouldering it has received since it won a “free and fair” Palestinian election. How long will it be before these negotiations move to the United Nations?