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Mideast peace talks - deja vu, anyone?

By Martin Fletcher, NBC News

Spot the joke.

Ever since he became Israel's prime minister and immediately became embroiled in a seemingly never-ending series of crises, skeptics have argued that Benjamin Netanyahu is brilliant at only one thing - surviving.

Analysts have run out of metaphors to describe his survival skills. But he will need all of them now that his foreign minister resigned, leaving Netanyahu's government with the slimmest majority in parliament, 61-59.

But few doubt his government will, somehow or other, live on. The bigger question now is - will the peace process survive?

Here’s the punch line: I wrote that January 1, 1999.

Actually, maybe it's not so funny after all.

The only update is that today's foreign minister hasn't yet resigned, but is threatening to do so, if Netanyahu makes any significant progress toward handing parts of the West Bank back to the Palestinians.

There isn't much danger of that, though.

The stuff of fantasy
It's unfortunate for President Barack Obama, who has said he wants a peace agreement wrapped up within a year, even though the process of implementation could take up to 10 years. Apart from Washington's expectations, you only have to listen to the rumblings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinian National Authority’s administrative capital, to understand that rapid progress is the stuff of fantasy.

Shimon Schiffer is generally recognized as one of the best political commentators in Israel. Here's his assessment in Tuesday's Yedioth Ahronoth, the most widely circulated paper in Israel:

"The prevalent assessment among officials who have been monitoring the efforts to restart the direct negotiations is that nothing will follow the photo-ops the three men will have in the three-day summit. In other words, this is a content-less initiative that is not going to move things forward by even a single meter."

One obstacle: Netanyahu told his people that any peace agreement would have to be based on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation. President Mahmoud Abbas has an equally intransigent demand: he will never recognize a Jewish state.

All the issues dividing Israelis and the Palestinians have remained the same for decades: the future of Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees, Israel's final borders, a security agreement.

Analysts generally accept that, one day, the final arrangement will be: Jerusalem will be divided between Jews and Arabs with the holy areas under some kind of international supervision; Palestinian refugees will be absorbed in the future Palestinian state with a token few thousand coming into Israel based on family reunification; the final borders will be along the lines of June 4, 1967, with a land swap to take into account Israel's settlement blocks on a meter-for-meter basis; security for both states will be guaranteed within a wider peace agreement that would follow an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.

But, small question: when's the breakthrough?

Is it within a year, as Obama is demanding, or perhaps desperately hoping? Israelis and Palestinians know that when an American president needs a foreign policy victory, Mideast peace will top their agenda. So they need to play along, keep their heads down, and blame the other side for any eventual failure.

Looming Iran
Each failed peace process brings Armageddon one step closer. Past major failures have swiftly been followed by violence. This time though a Palestinian uprising following a failed peace process appears unlikely; according to all Palestinian and Israeli sources. Palestinians just seem not to have the heart for another fight.

However, maybe Iran and its allies in the region do. The balance of terror is slowly shifting as reports multiply that Hezbollah in South Lebanon has 45,000 rockets with a vast long-range capability, putting Tel Aviv into its sights. Hamas in Gaza is also said to have advanced rockets that can hit Tel Aviv.

Then there’s Iran's ongoing nuclear program.

This makes a peace agreement, or at least some kind of peace process that offers hope rather than catastrophe, all the more urgent.

There are positive signs on the ground. Apart from a few of tragic killings -- on Tuesday, the Israeli military reported that a Palestinian gunman shot dead 4 Jewish settlers -- there's been little Palestinian-Israeli violence in the West Bank for 18 months. Economic growth is whizzing along at 8 percent, jobs are growing and foreign investment is arriving. The West Bank is one of the world's few economic success stories these days. Strangely enough, so is Israel.

But while there is a real improvement on the ground in relations between Israel and the West Bank, is the time right for a rapid push for peace? After all, close to 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza under the control of Hamas, which rejects all moves toward peace with Israel.

Skeptics scoff, but at least Obama is offering a way forward, extending a branch for peace.

But judging by everything one hears in Jerusalem and Ramallah, politicians on both sides are still not yet ready to climb down from their tall, tall trees.

Martin Fletcher has covered the Israel-Palestinian conflict for over 30 years