Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Saturday, 4 September 2010 11:51 UK

The search for a Middle East optimist

By Wyre Davies
BBC Middle East correspondent

As direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue in the US, Wyre Davies discovers that few Palestinians and Israelis are confident of a lasting deal, but encounters one man with a positive outlook.

Members of the Palestinian national security forces read Arabic-language newspapers outside their post in the West Bank city of Nablus
The peace talks are headline news but have been heavily criticised

Have you heard the joke about the optimist at the Middle East peace talks in Washington? What optimist?

It is not a particularly funny or original joke, but it makes the point well.

It is very hard to find anyone who honestly expects this process to achieve an elusive and historic peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

After an unbearably hot and dusty summer in the region, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators appeared to be making little progress in direct talks.

But the persuasive skills and infectious enthusiasm of Barack Obama eventually succeeded in getting Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to sit around the same table, in a renewed bid for peace.

The inescapable problem is that there are simply so many areas, in which both sides have fundamental differences

So surely someone, somewhere, would be writing, arguing or debating in positive terms about a golden chance to strike a deal. Not a hope.

Rarely can a process or an event have begun with such an air of negativity.

I have spent much of the past week travelling across Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, and around Jerusalem, in search of that most elusive of people - someone who is genuinely optimistic about peace in the Middle East.

'Impossible dream'

All of the above is not to say that there are not tangible signs of progress and hope in this troubled region.

Some parts of the West Bank, for example, have enjoyed a mini-economic boom in the last couple of years - thanks to more serious efforts at nation building and self-sufficiency on the Palestinian side, and a genuine easing of Israel's military and economic stranglehold in the occupied territories.

Israeli soldiers stand near construction machinery in the Jewish Settlement of Adom
The development of Jewish settlements is hindering peace negotiations

In the middle of the busy West Bank town of Ramallah, I met Tawfiq Nassar.

He is a Palestinian businessman who imports aluminium for the expanding construction and industrial sector.

Mr Nassar's business employs 12 local people and he does not deny that the economic situation here is much better than it has been for many years.

But, as I struggled to hear his voice above the din of rush-hour traffic and building projects all around us, Mr Nassar said his business was still hit by the vagaries of Israel's security crackdowns and unpredictable import bans.

A well-travelled, well-spoken and generally positive man, Tawfiq Nassar nonetheless thought that Israel's overwhelming obsession with security meant a workable peace deal and an independent Palestinian state was still an impossible dream.

The inescapable problem is that there are simply so many areas in which both sides have fundamental differences.

If they can agree on economic matters, they may stall on the future of Jerusalem.

Progress on the issue of Israeli security may be offset by deep arguments about Palestinian refugees. And then there is the issue of the settlements.

After saying goodbye to Mr Nassar I made the short journey to a windy hilltop to the north and the settlement of Beit El.

Everyone I spoke to seemed to have an unwaveringly pessimistic take on the peace talks - whatever their politics or background

Dotted around Ramallah are several neat, lush Jewish settlements, identifiable by their orderly streets and red-roofed houses.

There are more than 120 settlements of various sizes in the West Bank.

They are illegal under international law because they are built on occupied Palestinian territory.

To the 400,000 settlers who now live in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, they are seen as pioneering communities on what is historically Jewish land.

Stark message

In Beit El, which is regarded as a religiously observant settlement, I met Yishai Fleisher - a lawyer and radio presenter.

Mr Fleisher insisted that he wanted to live in peace with his Arab neighbours - indeed he acknowledged that the security situation in the area had improved markedly in recent years.

But there he drew the line.

This settler, and many others in the community, say they simply will not allow Mr Netanyahu to abandon settlements like Beit El as part of a peace deal.

Nobel Prize winning laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel is optimistic about the the talks

Like many right-wing voters who normally support Israel's coalition government, Mr Fleisher is not wishing these talks any success.

The shooting dead recently of four settlers by militants from Hamas was a stark message that some people are prepared to go even further in order to sabotage the peace process.

Business-people, settlers, journalists, politicians - everyone I spoke to seemed to have an unwaveringly pessimistic take on the peace talks, whatever their politics or background.

Slightly deflated, scorched by the sun and with a dry throat from the dust, I returned to Jerusalem.

My next and unrelated assignment was an interview with the Nobel Prize winning laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who was in town to receive an award.

A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the affable and very sharp 81-year-old has perhaps more just cause than most people to be wary about making peace with former enemies.

But the celebrated author of more than 60 books has clearly been speaking on a very personal level with Mr Obama.

Declaring that he was impressed by the president's sincerity and commitment to peace, Elie Wiesel looked at me and said that he, too, was very optimistic about the chances for peace.

"I'm a very poor prophet and I've been wrong in the past," he quickly added.

But that did not matter, I had found my optimist.

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Country profile: Israel and Palestinian territories
09 Mar 11 |  Country profiles


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