By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
A veteran reporter on the Middle East asked me the other day: "Is it too late?"
Jerusalem at issue: The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall
We had been discussing the prospects for the meeting in Annapolis in the United States scheduled for next week at which the Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to commit themselves to reaching a peace agreement.
My instinct was to agree with him. We had first met in Jerusalem in the mid 1980s and have followed the ups and downs of negotiations since. The experience has not made us optimists.
Aims of Annapolis
As yet another attempt to get a final settlement gets underway, it is fair to ask if this is really more about giving the appearance of progress than making progress.
Annapolis is a pleasant Maryland town on the Chesapeake Bay and home to the US Naval Academy.
No doubt some fine words will be spoken there.
The Annapolis "meeting" (it is denied the honour of being called a "conference" in order to reduce expectations) is designed to launch a process not complete it.
The sad example is that previous efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians have led only into the wilderness.
There was Camp David in 1978. It made peace between Israel and Egypt, hugely important, but it largely ignored the Palestinians.
In September 1993, the handshake on the lawns of the White House by the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave hope but no peace.
In the summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton got Yasser Arafat and one of Mr Rabin's successors, Ehud Barak, as close to an actual settlement as anyone. But the final gap proved a chasm.
In 2003, the Quartet of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN drew up a so-called "road map" to peace (supposed to be achieved by 2005). That map has gathered dust.
The issues have not really changed. To reach a final agreement the parties have to agree on:
- The borders of Israel and a state of Palestine
- The future of Jerusalem
- The question of Israeli settlements on the land Israel captured in the war of 1967
- The claimed "right of return" of Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) to towns and villages from which they fled or were expelled in the war of 1948.
There has been little sign that they are anywhere near agreement.
Instead there has been a new argument - about an Israeli demand that Israel should be recognised as a "Jewish state".
This is something fundamental for the Israelis but Palestinians see it as taking one of their cards - the refugees - off the table in advance.
Causes for hope?
There are perhaps only two reasons for any hope.
The first is the fear of something worse.
Annapolis can be seen as a way of trying to support the moderates.
The strategy is to show Palestinians that talks can produce results and that the confrontation promoted by Hamas in Gaza is not the way forward.
The danger is that this strategy might fail and leave the Palestinians with nothing and the Israelis still in the state of "siege" described by the Irish and UN diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien in 1986.
The second is a better understanding that the philosophy behind Oslo and the road map might be wrong. Both those agreements sought to establish an atmosphere of peace and security first, leading to a final agreement second.
There is nothing wrong with trying to create better conditions, something for example that the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been trying to do on the economic front.
But without a final agreement, there can probably be no peace and security. Security will not lead to an agreement. It is an agreement that will lead to security.
So the tough issues have to be tackled upfront.
But it has all been left desperately late.