The talks, which began Monday at a special ceremony in Gaza, involve the issues that the two sides failed to agree on in the Oslo Accords, back in the most optimistic days of the peace process. With the six years of turmoil that followed Oslo, negotiators face an even tougher challenge resolving disputes over things that each side holds sacred: a Palestinian state and its borders, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees whose original homes are in Israel. Early on, each side will bid high. Hence, the Palestinian threat to proceed with statehood regardless of the outcome of the talks, and Barak’s warning that he can live without a deal. Ultimately, though, neither side can really afford the domestic and international consequences of allowing the peace process to fail. That said, however, Israel still holds the aces.
As Israel and the Palestinians turned the egg timer over one more time Monday, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made it clear that he’s not particularly worried about the sand running out. The Israeli prime minister said Sunday that if the two sides failed to agree on the principles of a final peace accord — the so-called "Final Status" talks — by the February 15 deadline, they could simply forgo such an agreement and agree to get along on the basis of existing interim agreements. The Palestinians, naturally, laughed that one out of court, but Barak was sending an unambiguous message: Yasser Arafat needs a peace deal a lot more than he does, and if Barak doesn’t like what’s being offered, the Israeli leader will simply walk away from the table. For Arafat, anything less than a Palestinian state and some piece of Jerusalem would court political disaster in his own constituency, whose skepticism has steadily grown about what the PLO has achieved by compromising its campaign against Israel.