“Preliminary” talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are nominally supposed to give way to specific peace talks and an eventual settlement. The US is talking this goal up, of course, but the indications are neither side really believes it, and is setting up for a timely failure.
Instead of being about what the two sides can do to advance a settlement, the focus seems to be on what political advantage the leaders on either side can squeeze out of the lead-up to the talks, and treating the inevitable failure as an afterthought.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is hardly in a position to negotiate a real settlement, but may see his poll ratings boost with preconditions on getting a number of prisoners freed.
Hamas scored big points with the number of detainees freed in trade for Gilad Shalit. It didn’t even matter how many were re-detained in the weeks and months that followed, the gain was tangible, and Abbas seems eager to get the same boost.
For the Netanyahu government, a deal isn’t even really an option, with a lot of his coalition openly opposed to peace on general principle. Rather, officials say the real goal is to keep the talks going in some form through September so the PA has no excuse to go to the UN seeking a unilateral declaration of statehood at the General Assembly.
Selling the rest of his coalition on the non-talks is going to be key for Netanyahu, and keeping the detainee releases from being politically damaging is a risk, but managing to avoid another round of pro-Palestine votes in the General Assembly would be a big win for his coalition, and if the talks crumble shortly thereafter it can set another round of diplomatic grandstanding and blaming the other side for not making a deal.