Round and round again

Pressure is building on all sides for positive movement to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The transition in Washington, February's Israeli elections, and possible power shifts among the Palestinians are encouraging perceptions of a new "window of opportunity". But while the view through the glass may be clearer, the window frame remains firmly locked and bolted.

Filling the temporary gap between George Bush and Barack Obama, Britain has presumed to lead and is busy twisting arms. Gordon Brown's talks today with Israel's caretaker leader, Ehud Olmert, followed a gee-up session with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, at a London conference on investment in the Palestinian economy. "Let's seize the opportunity to make 2009 the Middle East year of peace," Brown said.

Claiming to have Obama's full backing, Brown's clunking fist is also being directed at the Arab states. "Ultimately more is needed than a two-state solution – a broader peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours," he said. That message was driven home by foreign secretary David Miliband during a visit to the region last month.

Miliband warned that direct Arab engagement was needed to re-unite Palestine's Fatah and Hamas factions and propel talks to a successful conclusion. "It is only through an Arab-brokered process that Palestinian reconciliation will be possible. And the Palestinians simply do not have enough on their own to offer the Israelis to clinch a deal."

Responding on cue, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, reaffirmed this week that the Arab peace plan, offering recognition of Israel in return for withdrawal from land occupied in 1967, was still a runner. "It is still on the table and it deserves a reply," Faisal said at the UN. "We don't want negotiations for the sake of negotiations. We want results."

Added impetus is coming from the UN security council which is due to adopt a resolution, jointly proposed by the US and Russia, endorsing the Annapolis process that reactivated Israel-Palestine talks last year. A statement this week from the so-called Middle East Quartet described the process, based in part on Bush's road map, as "irreversible".

Although frustrated in her belated efforts to broker an accord, the outgoing US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said the resolution would place the full weight of the international community behind the Israel-Palestine talks. "This is the first time in almost a decade that [the two sides] are addressing all of the core issues in a comprehensive way," Rice said.

On the face of it, this is all positive. But it is also a familiar, circular diplomatic dance going back decades that never quite seems to end. As ever, the view from the ground is less encouraging. That is partly because, despite all the posing and pirouetting, not much has changed for the better; and partly because the factors inspiring this latest bout of optimism could also work to negative effect.

On the Israeli side, settlement activity and numbers continue to grow, accompanied by what the Quartet termed "the growing threat of settler extremism". There are now about 300,000 Israelis living on West Bank land. Israel's continuing blockade of Hamas-run Gaza threatens, or has already become, a humanitarian catastrophe. A whole generation of children is suffering traumatic stress, malnutrition and avoidable disease, Palestinian doctors say.

Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's best efforts notwithstanding, Israel's general election is most likely, on current trends, to bring to power the hardline Likud chief, Binyamin Netanyahu. As Akiva Eldar noted in the Ha'aretz newspaper this week, Netanyahu, while paying lip service to continued negotiations, "does not believe the Palestinians are ready for any historical compromise that would truly put an end to the conflict".

According to Eldar, Netanyahu, as when he was prime minister in the 1990s, is more likely to pull the rug from under the feet of the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas and the pragmatist camp and "extend the conflict over many years instead of resolving it as soon as possible".

On the Palestinian side, real-time portents are scarcely more encouraging. Hamas is threatening to abandon its much-breached truce with Israel this coming Friday and is meanwhile gleefully forecasting the downfall of Abbas, whose term they claim expires next month. According to some analysts, Hamas itself is split between political and military wings. That renders the prospect of a rapprochement with Fatah moderates even more remote, Arab mediation or no. Apart from unity, the Palestinians also lack leverage and sufficient, practical Arab backing.

And as for the expected big new Middle East push by Obama, guided by Brown, well, don't hold your breath. The US president-elect has much else of consequence on his plate – global recession and Afghanistan-Pakistan to name two. Hillary Clinton, his nominee as secretary of state, is as blinkered, cautious and conservative as Rice when it comes to Palestine, and a good deal less experienced.

Never mind that, some say. Obama will appoint a powerful new Middle East envoy. But the last thing the region requires is yet another envoy. What it most needs now is belief that the endless cycle of violence and misery really can be halted. That belief is still missing.

Simon Tisdall