On the surface, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's comments to his Likud faction this week about a discernible change in the diplomatic mood over the last few weeks seemed a bit detached from reality. "In recent weeks, there has been a change of atmosphere," he said on Monday. "I hope that the time is now ripe to move the peace process forward." Coming the same day that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo that he did not want to resume peace talks on an "unclear basis," and after Abbas had reiterated his demand for a complete cessation of all settlement construction before restarting talks, one seemed hard pressed to discern the atmospheric change Netanyahu had talked about.
But, sources in the Prime Minister's Office insist, the change is there - one just needs to look very carefully.
First of all, Jerusalem believes that Abbas is beginning to hear impatience from a number of key players about continuing to reject talks.
The US has weighed in unequivocally that the negotiations need to start immediately. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell have been telling the Palestinians this clearly since Netanyahu declared a 10-month housing start moratorium in the settlements in late November.
Even so, on Wednesday evening, during a rare and lengthy television interview with Charlie Rose, Mitchell threw in a little sweetener to the Palestinians to get them back to the table.
"We think that the negotiation should last no more than two years, once begun we think it can be done within that period of time. We hope the parties agree. Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time," he said, nodding to the Palestinian demand that the discussions be limited in time, not open-ended as Netanyahu has insisted.
Still, the pressure coming from Washington on the PA to restart the talks is constant and real. Secondly, even the Europeans - whom the PA had hoped would issue statements backing its demands for the terms of reference for the negotiations - are increasingly telling the Palestinians that the time has come to restart talks. Indeed, the EU is expected to add a call for renewed negotiations in a statement likely to be issued by the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - by the end of the month.
And this week, increasingly, it appeared that the Egyptians were also putting their full weight behind edging Abbas back to the table. Diplomatic sources said that the US had expended not insignificant efforts in getting Egypt to support a PA return to talks, efforts that now seem close to bearing fruit.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman are currently in Washington for talks, and one of the issues on the agenda, according to diplomatic officials, is getting the Egyptians to spread their net over negotiations by hosting a summit that would launch them.
This could be critical, according to diplomatic sources, in signaling real Arab support for negotiations. If Abbas does go back to talks without a full settlement freeze, as he has demanded, or an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state along the contours of the 1967 line, as he has also demanded, it would be easier for him to do so safely under an Egyptian umbrella.
Time, it seems, is beginning to wear folks down.
IN HIS May interview with The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, Abbas famously said he could sit back and wait.
"I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements," he said. "Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality... the people are living a normal life."
According to a senior source in Jerusalem, Abbas believed then that his economic and security situation was both tolerable and sustainable, and that he could simply sit back and pass the time as the pressure mounted on Israel.
But now, the source said, Abbas may be coming to realize that he has taken this game as far as he could: that Hamas - and by extension Iran - was benefitting from the current stalemate; that US President Barack Obama was not going to "deliver" Netanyahu; that the Europeans had given him as much diplomatic cover as they were able; and that it was now necessary to start climbing down, one small branch at a time, from the tall tree he had perched himself upon.
The rustling of those branches is the change in atmosphere that Netanyahu referred to.
Granted, Abbas - in his Cairo comments - chanted his end-to-settlement-construction mantra, but it lacked some elements of the past. First of all, he did not explicitly call for an end to all construction in east Jerusalem as a precondition for talks.
An oversight? Maybe, or perhaps he was beginning to absorb the message that Netanyahu really wasn't going to stop building in places like Gilo, Neveh Ya'acov, Har Homa and Pisgat Ze'ev.
Interestingly enough, Mitchell, in his interview, said it was clear that Israel would continue to build in east Jerusalem.
"The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in east Jerusalem. They don't regard that as a settlement because they think it's part of Israel," he said.
This is a message that Mitchell, among others, was certainly conveying to Abbas - that if you wait for talks until Israel stops building in Gilo you will be waiting a long time - and it may have started to register.
Also, Abbas - after meeting Mubarak - said he was ready for negotiations, not something he has uttered often or reflexively since Netanyahu took power in March.
"In principle, we have no objections to returning to the negotiating table or holding any kind of meetings," Abbas said. "Nor are we setting preconditions."
"He is choosing language that is less strident, more passive," one government source said.
The overall assessment is that Abbas may now understand that the current situation is not in his interest, and that negotiations are. It is equally obvious, however, that having posited a settlement freeze and recognition of the 1967 lines as preconditions to talks, Abbas will now need something to save face, to show his people that he has not totally capitulated to Israeli and US dictates.
The question is what will Netanyahu give him.
Sources around the prime minister have said consistently over the last few weeks that the gift-giving to lure the PA back to the table ended with the settlement construction moratorium. All talk, they claim, that Netanyahu would agree to the Palestinian demand that the 1967 lines be recognized as the basis for negotiations, or make some concession up front on Jerusalem, was baseless.
But still, if Abbas now returns to talks without a settlement freeze, it is obvious he will demand something significant in return. Indeed, as Mitchell said in his interview, "what we have suggested to the Israelis is a series of steps and actions that they could take that would encourage" Abbas to reenter the negotiations. Mitchell would not elaborate.
Once the present flurry of diplomatic activity passes - the visit by the Egyptians to Washington, Abbas's current tour of Arab capitals and Mitchell's visit here within the next two weeks - those "steps and actions" will become clear. Then the next and critical question will become whether Netanyahu's coalition can bear their weight.
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