The Middle East Channel

Israeli-Palestinian talks in Jordan: Working hard at treading water

On January 6, 2011, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Sharm el Sheikh in an effort to resuscitate the flagging peace process. Egypt for many years played the role of regional protector of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was extremely heavy on process while being ever-more transparently light on delivering peace. It is a role that the new Egypt is unlikely to volunteer for.

Almost exactly one year later, Jordan has gone some ways toward assuming that role by convening Israeli-Palestinian exploratory talks in Amman on Tuesday. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not meet officially or publicly throughout 2011 at the Palestinian insistence that Israel first stop settlement activity. It took a considerable effort to make yesterday's meeting happen, given ongoing settlement construction, land seizures, and home demolitions. The meeting, hosted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on behalf of King Abdullah II, brought together Quartet envoys, Yizhak Molcho, legal adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, and the indefatigable chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, awkwardly pictured at the table's head as he presented  positions on border and security (proposals well known to his interlocutors). Following the meeting, Judeh sought to manage expectations while announcing that a series of talks will follow. Preserving an old school peace process is going to be very hard work in the new realities of the Middle East.

Make no mistake: this peace process is very much a creature of the old Middle East -- a place in which pretense was everything, from make-believe parliaments and elections to a make-believe peace industry. The resumed peace talks are not going to lead anywhere -- that is probably the safest bet that can be placed for 2012. It would even be fair to say that an inverse relationship exists between sustaining the peace process and advancing actual peace (by which one would presumably mean ending the occupation and securing a democratic future for Israelis and Palestinians alike), as the situation on the ground continues to worsen under cover of more process.

In 2011, the PLO appeared close to breaking out of the status-quo of "peace processing" -- flirting with alternative diplomatic strategies at the United Nations and elsewhere, building a unified national movement, and exploring the unarmed popular struggle associated with the so-called Arab Spring -- strategies which now appear to be indefinitely stalled. PLO actions were -- and continue to be -- characterized by strategic confusion and indecisiveness, ensnared by interim agreements and external dependencies.

Given the positions of the negotiating parties, their respective political realities, and their actions over the last months, the talks in Amman had the theater of absurd quality to them. Why then this willingness to maintain the charade? And why this enthusiastic pursuit of restarting talks by the outside players -- the United States, the Quartet, and Jordan?

Of course, the peace process is what people know: it offers a familiar comfort zone in a time and place of change. It has also been a surprisingly resilient tool for managing and bringing a degree of stability to the Palestinian file for almost two decades. It may not have advanced Palestinian rights and freedoms, and that same period has witnessed a weakening -- not strengthening -- of any two-state possibility, and indeed of Israel's own security, democracy and standing. But it has largely prevented the emergence of alternatives that some regional or international actors might find inconvenient -- a popular Palestinian revolution, the sanctioning of Israel, a one-state struggle, etc., while avoiding forcing hard questions on whether to maintain the Oslo arrangements. 

Each of the principal players had their own calculations and reasons for showing up in Amman on Jan. 3. To the Jordanian hosts, the new Middle East is a treacherous place to be carefully navigated. While taking too much ownership of the Israeli-Palestinian process would be risky (and King Abdullah is unlikely to do a Full Monty in assuming the Mubarak role, for a variety of reasons), leaving the Palestinian file totally neglected would be equally foolhardy as Jordan's future may well depend on the creation of a Palestinian state. Jordan has also recently been rebuilding bridges with both Hamas and its own Islamists (the Islamic Action Front). Convening talks could be read as confirmation of its more traditional relations (with Fatah, America, and Israel), notably in advance of an anticipated visit of King Abdullah to the United States. Theatre is also important for Jordan as it faces growing domestic dissent over its own peace accord with Israel.  

The U.S. administration has a particularly limited appetite for drinking from the Israeli-Palestinian chalice in an election year. With Obama keen to avoid surprises, the most convenient parking place for the Israel-Palestine issue in 2012 would be a schlepped out series of talks about talks (about talks about talks about talks, or however it goes). A resumed process would also distract from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership gathering dust in the Security Council files and make it easier to secure continued Congressional funding for the Palestinian Authority. That would facilitate continued U.S. influence and discouragement of a power-sharing deal with Hamas, and ideally make Israel less troublesome as an issue in 2012. (At least when it comes to the Palestinians -- on Iran, all bets are off).

The Netanyahu government has long expressed its preference for unconditional negotiations. Assuming the Israeli government can avoid being cornered on substance, which would cause coalition headaches for Netanyahu, Israel can then benefit from an improvement to its image by conducting peace talks while continuing to expand and entrench its control in the territories, and maintain at least one ally in the region.

PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas perhaps has the most to lose by resuming talks without securing either a settlement freeze or clear terms of reference (hence the Palestinians have called the Jordan meeting, "talks about talks.") Yet Abbas is clearly hesitant about pursuing alternatives -- diplomatic and other paths. He needs good relations with the Jordanian regime, and will require American and European support to keep the Palestinian Authority solvent and paying salaries. Abbas also wants to avoid being blamed for any inability to advance the latest Quartet initiative, thus Erekat's reiteration of their proposals on borders and security in Jordan.

The case will of course be made that if the parties are at least talking something might come out of it, and that Netanyahu might yet surprise -- perhaps at some level this is what motivates the Quartet and the European Union. However, the broader dynamics all point in the opposite direction. It is likely that the moments of resumed peace processing will be shorter lived and harder to sustain than in the past. The Palestinians may be repeating old and bad habits by offering their own maps in the absence of Israeli counter-proposals -- continuing the tradition of Israel then negotiating them down from wherever the starting point was -- while naively waiting for the U.S. and Quartet to lay the blame on Israel's door and continuing to postpone the development of their own new strategy.

Still, under current circumstances, the Palestinians will not be able to stay in the room for long. Israel will not offer even the minimal dignified palliatives to keep them in the room, and the Jordanians cannot go much further out on a limb -- the United States is unlikely to push hard for progress.

Until there is a major shift in the outlook and strategy of at least one of the key protagonists, the defining motif for these talks will be the law of diminishing returns, as more and more effort will need to be expended to achieve an ever-more miniscule peace-process product. It is clearly time for a re-think, but for all involved the distractions are too abundant and the temptations of the status quo too convenient.

Daniel Levy and Leila Hilal co-direct the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and are editors of the Middle East Channel. They have previously advised the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, respectively.

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