Occupied Jerusalem: For more than two years, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders have placed blame for their stalemated peace process not only on one another but on a lack of engagement by the Obama administration. But now that President Barack Obama and his new secretary of state have signalled plans to visit, both sides still remain sceptical that much will change.
At best, experts say, there may be movement on the margins. The United States is expected to soon release $200 million in aid to the financially ailing Palestinian Authority that it has withheld for months. There is talk of giving the Palestinians partial control over some areas of the West Bank where Israel currently rules. Israel may release some longstanding Palestinian prisoners as a gesture.
Also, some Israelis and Americans are pushing the idea of at least a partial freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for a promise by the Palestinians to postpone plans to use their new upgraded status at the United Nations to pursue claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
"What's possibly new is not to simply focus on getting to negotiations, because that's too limited," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt who edited a recent book on the situation. "We have to be able to do four or five things relatively simultaneously, so that no one can say we've prejudiced this peace process against them. It's like a smorgasbord. You find a little bit that's of value to you, and there are some things you don't like, but the whole table is something that's accepted."
Few expect Obama's visit, scheduled for March 20, to yield a summit meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Even a return to the negotiating table feels far off, according to analysts and people inside each government.
"In the end, it's a question of whether the two leaders are serious about actually achieving an agreement, or whether they want to manoeuvre to blame the other for lack of progress," said Martin S. Indyk, another former ambassador to Israel and now the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "Is it a blame game, or a peace game?"
The US president plans to stay two days in Jerusalem. Besides meeting with Israeli leaders, he is expected to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Mount Herzl cemetery, and to give a speech, either in Parliament or at a university.
Obama will most likely spend a few hours in the West Bank, sitting with Abbas and perhaps touring a development project with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Some Israeli analysts and officials see a resumption of peace talks – even if they lead nowhere – as a tool to stem the rising tide of international criticism of Israel's policies.
"We have to submit a proposal to the Palestinians, a decent proposal, a fair proposal," said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who is now director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. "If the Palestinians will accept it, it's a win of peace. If they refuse – as we think they will – then at least we win the blame game and we can continue to shape our borders by ourselves without the need to wait for the Palestinians to agree."