Nine months after US President Barack Obama made Middle East peace a centerpiece of his foreign policy, that goal appears more elusive than ever.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast special envoy George Mitchell will present a progress report to the president next week, and the news won't be good. The only positive element of their report, said an administration spokesman, is that while progress has been scant, at least they're still talking.True - but not to each other.Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are expected to meet again - separately - in Washington next week with Mitchell in search of a formula for relaunching peace talks.Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said over the weekend that the US and Israel have reached an agreement on a partial settlement freeze, but extensive construction continues and there's no confirmation of a deal from the administration; in any event, the Palestinians are likely to reject whatever halfway measure they come up with.That may disappoint Obama but not the Israeli or Palestinian leaders, neither of whom shares the president's enthusiasm for restarting the peace process.PALESTINIAN LEADER Mahmoud Abbas said he won't sit down with Netanyahu without a total freeze of Israeli construction beyond the 1967 border, including east Jerusalem, something Obama had called for initially but backed away from in the face of intense Israeli opposition.Abbas, with his popularity plunging, is toughening his terms for resuming talks and topping them off with increasingly strident rhetoric. That appears aimed less at Israel than at Palestinian voters - polls show him tied with Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh if the elections were held now. The object is to tell voters he's as tough as his Hamas rivals, who continue to insist they want neither peace nor Israel.While that may play well on the Palestinian street, it tells Israeli voters there is no Palestinian leader serious enough about making peace to go to the street to preach reconciliation.The latest attempt at compromise between Fatah and Hamas appears on the brink of collapse even before it is signed. The two sides refuse even to meet together so the draft agreement had to be faxed to them by their Egyptian interlocutors.Fatah quickly signed, not because it was anxious to make peace but because it knew the agreement was doomed and wanted to be able to put the onus for killing it on Hamas, which fell for it by demanding changes, including the right to continue "resistance to occupation" - terror attacks on Israel.The plan would create a unity government to run the Palestinian Authority until presidential and parliamentary elections can be held late next June; if the deal falls through, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will call elections for January.Elections are important to achieving international recognition for Hamas, which prefers the June date, with a requirement that Abbas conduct no negotiations with Israel until then.The Obama administration opposes the Egyptian-brokered deal because it would set back its efforts to revive the peace talks that Fatah says it wants and Hamas says it opposes. Washington demands Hamas must first meet the international community's terms: renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept prior PA-Israeli agreements. It refuses.WITH THE Palestinians so deeply divided and more focused on their internal power struggles than peace with Israel, and the US increasingly mired in Afghanistan, Netanyahu is effectively free from pressure to move to final status negotiations. That leaves the US with no partners for peace talks.If Palestinian reconciliation means a unity government with Hamas that refuses to recognize Israel and the two-state approach, the US can be expected to support Israel's refusal to deal with it. And without a credible Palestinian partner, there is no incentive for Obama to expend vital political capital on something headed nowhere when he needs it so badly elsewhere.And the truth is that Netanyahu, presiding over a fragile right-wing coalition that could collapse if there are any serious peace moves, doesn't share Obama's vision of a quick return to negotiations with the Palestinians - any Palestinians.But the Obama administration won't just walk away. Even if it concludes neither side is ready for serious peace talks, the administration is likely to remain involved at a lower level than initially planned if just to keep the pot from boiling over and to be ready when the two sides have leadership ready to make peace.Still, the days of aggressive, assertive US peacemaking may be over before they had a chance to begin.