January 30, 2012 Edition 4 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The Amman talks
Not-so-hidden agendas  - Yossi Alpher
I would have to invoke that definition of insanity often attributed to Einstein: "doing the same think over and over and expecting different results".

Not only time will be lost  - Ghassan Khatib
The world must stop pushing for the continuity of something that has been tried for 20 years.

Another exercise in futile diplomacy  - Efraim Inbar
Israel's insistence on a defensible border along the Jordan River did not sit well with Palestinian visions.

The talks are dead, long live the talks  - Maher Abukhater
Every time the talks reach a dead end, someone comes up with a new initiative.

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Not-so-hidden agendas
 Yossi Alpher
The Amman preliminary peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were suspended after the latest session adjourned on January 26. At the time of writing, it was not clear whether the Jordanian and Quartet organizers could persuade PLO leaders to return for more in February. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas intends to consult with the Arab League before deciding.

Whether or not the talks resume, the realistic expectation of their outcome will almost certainly not be to usher in serious final status talks. So what are the sponsors and the participants up to? In reality, each and every concerned party put on a good show in Amman for reasons not related to a two-state solution.

Beginning with the hosts, the Hashemite kingdom sees a useful opportunity in Cairo's preoccupation with revolutionary transition: it can present Amman as alternative patron of Israeli-Palestinian peace. This enables King Abdullah II to appease the Palestinian sector of Jordan's population by showing that Jordan can play a positive role. By taking the international stage, the king also presents an enhanced leadership profile to other sectors in Jordan that have been critical of his leadership. And by working with the non-Islamist PLO, it is easier for him to fend off Islamist pressures--to enhance the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan or to host the Hamas leadership for anything beyond a photo-op visit, which is precisely what he did in late January.

That the king has no real hopes regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace process can be gleaned from his decision to delegate Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh to run the Amman meetings. Judeh in fact functions as little more than a high-level information officer for the kingdom; he is no Kissinger.

The PLO leadership under Abbas has understood ever since the conclusion of its talks with Israel's Olmert government in 2008 that the substantive gaps between the two sides' positions on issues like holy places and the right of return are unbridgeable. Renewed talks have no chance of success if the objective is a two-state solution that ends all claims. Hence Abbas is busying himself with alternatives like United Nations recognition and resolving Fateh's differences with Hamas. The PLO is also waiting to see how the fortunes of Arab revolution affect its standing and its capacity to negotiate. Basically, its agenda in Amman has been to humor King Abdullah and the Quartet, whose good will it needs, particularly in fending off possible inroads by Hamas.

The Netanyahu government in Israel also has an interest in boosting the prestige of the Hashemite kingdom. Israeli governments have traditionally seen Jordan as both a strategic buffer between Israel and aggression from the east, and a potential moderating factor in the Palestinian equation. Under present circumstances, Israeli refusal to attend the talks in Amman could have provoked yet further deterioration in already poor Jordanian-Israeli relations.

As for the international factor, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands that the Obama administration will not exercise serious pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinian issue during a US election year, he does not wish to take on the entire Quartet needlessly, especially when he knows that the PLO's impatience with these unconditional pre-negotiations plays in Israel's favor. Netanyahu also knows that in any event, the gaps between the two sides talking in Amman render serious negotiations--the kind that might compromise Netanyahu's hard-line government--extremely unlikely.

Besides, Netanyahu is contemplating elections in Israel this year and wants to appeal to centrist voters by demonstrating how "reasonable" Israel can be in negotiations with the Palestinians. Accordingly, on January 26 Netanyahu's delegate to the Amman talks, Yitzhak Molcho, finally presented an official position regarding territorial issues. He sketched out a two-state border not close to the 1967 lines, with no Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Not only is this far from the Palestinian position, and not only does it not approach the demands of the Quartet, but Molcho's lines are equally unacceptable to the more hawkish factions in Netanyahu's coalition.

Netanyahu apparently reasons that he can take chances with his coalition in an election year and can defend this position to the Israeli electorate, while Washington will not bother him about it at least in the year ahead. (Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereket refused even to listen to a presentation of Israeli security concerns by an Israeli army general, thereby rendering Netanyahu's negotiating life even easier.)

Finally, there is the Quartet itself and its component members: the United States, European Union, UN and Russia. The very raison d'etre of this body and its representative Tony Blair is a peace process. Apparently any process will do, even the kind of frustrating and pointless one we are witnessing, especially in an American, French and Russian election year.

Yet the Quartet can assert that "any kind of dialogue is better than none" only up to a point. Rather than reassessing the failures of the Oslo formula and coming up with a new model, the Quartet pursues a path of folly. If I didn't know better, I would have to invoke that definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein: "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results".-Published 30/1/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Not only time will be lost
 Ghassan Khatib
The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that took place in Jordan over the month of January were very controversial among the Palestinian people and politically costly for the Palestinian leadership, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

This is because the Palestinian leadership had said repeatedly that it would not renew negotiations unless Israel stops settlement expansion. Israel did not comply. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership promised the public to proceed with attempts to internationalize the conflict, rather than allow their cause to continue languishing in bilateral talks.

On the bright side, while the talks did not produce any progress, they strengthened the Palestinian leadership's argument within the Palestinian community that the problems it faces are not an absence of negotiations. The solution, likewise, will not come with additional discussions but rather when and if more attention is paid to the components required for successful negotiations. First, Israel must stop practices that consolidate its control over the occupied territories and leave these issues to negotiations. Second, there must be agreement between the parties on terms of reference for talks that are based in international legality, i.e., the goal of reaching a two-state solution on the basis of the borders of 1967.

Otherwise, the two sides can negotiate forever without moving towards the objectives of the peace process, particularly the objective of two independent states. Unless the international community sees peace negotiations as an objective in themselves, it must stop pushing for the continuity of something that has been tried for 20 years. We must invest in a different process, including one that revises the third-party role to this conflict.

In this regard, representatives of the international community such as the Quartet must introduce aspects of accountability into their relations with the parties of the conflict as part of their role of encouraging progress towards peace. The United States and the European Union have immense leverage over the parties. Instead of pushing Palestinians and Israelis to pursue talks that lead nowhere, there should be attempts to use this leverage to "encourage" the parties to be more serious towards the process and to be more consistent in relating to international legality.

Otherwise, it is not only time that will be lost. A historical opportunity for peace will be allowed to slip between our fingers. Allowing Israel to continue stalling this process will deepen the rift between the parties, allowing more radicalization and creating a reality on the ground incompatible with the two-state solution.

Jordan and other Arab countries that supported this last initiative in Amman now have even greater responsibility and obligation to explain to the other interested parties that Israel has proven reluctant to grasp this opportunity for actual engagement. They need to help communicate the message that simply extending these talks without changing their substance and without encouraging the partners, especially Israel, to engage in a way compatible with international law will not bring about any better chances for peace.-Published 30/1/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Another exercise in futile diplomacy
 Efraim Inbar
Few should be surprised by the failure of the Amman talks, which constituted an additional attempt by the international Quartet to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These meetings were intended to break the impasse in the peace process, after the Palestinians decided to relinquish the option of negotiations with Israel and to adopt instead a unilateral approach to attain their goals.

This unilateralism, reflected in the PLO's failed attempt to gain recognition as a state at the United Nations, was not well received in the United States and most of Europe. In order to overcome the international repercussions of such a move, the Palestinians heeded the advice of the Quartet and returned reluctantly to a "pre-negotiation" table in Amman, still committed to "go it alone" if their territorial expectations were not fulfilled by Israel.

As expected, Israel's offers did not satisfy Palestinian desires. Over the years, the Palestinians have rejected generous offers by then-prime ministers Ehud Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2008). Obviously, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not do better. Not many details emerged from the Amman talks, but it seems that the Palestinian demand for Jerusalem was a serious obstacle for progress in the peace talks. Similarly, Israel's insistence on a defensible border along the Jordan River did not sit well with Palestinian visions.

The Palestinians refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state--a core issue in the history of the Arab-Israel conflict. While Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, recognized the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" in 1978, the Palestinians still have not reciprocated. Denying the legitimate right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel only reinforces the majority Israeli consensus that the Palestinians are not a serious partner for peacemaking.

Indeed, the gap in positions between Israelis and Palestinians is extremely large and cannot be bridged overnight. It is totally unrealistic to expect an agreement on final status issues in the near future. The best that can be achieved is interim agreements, tacit or formal, that do not entail grave security risks for Israel. Even the Obama administration learned the hard way that conflict resolution should be replaced with conflict management. That is the only strategy that has a chance to minimize suffering on both sides and achieve a modicum of stability in a stormy Middle East.

To a great extent, the Amman talks can be seen as an international effort to maintain a facade of negotiations within the framework of a conflict management strategy. Their failure will inevitably bring about another bout of diplomatic activism in pursuit of another forum for an Israeli-Palestinian exchange of views that will similarly fail. Such failures hardly discourage professional diplomats who make an honorable living by trying to bring peace.

Regional developments, namely the uprisings in the Arab world, have also contributed to the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Palestinians are quite vexed that the Arab masses have hardly mentioned the Palestinian issue, showing that it is not a main cause of instability in the Middle East. This has reduced the sense of urgency for "solving" the Palestinian problem, as other problems have attracted much more attention. Moreover, the success of Islamist parties in premature elections in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the growing influence of Islamist groups in other parts of the Arab world, does not bode well for the peace process. While domestic concerns may force such groups toward seeming moderation, Israel is still generally viewed as an illegitimate political entity that must eventually be eradicated. This is also the position of Hamas.

Unfortunately, the "Islamic winter" has emboldened Hamas, enhancing its position in Palestinian society and politics. Indeed, in May 2011, Fateh--out of weakness--signed a reconciliation accord with Hamas that remains to be actualized. In fact, the fragmentation and/or Islamization of states that characterizes the "Arab spring" was first seen in Hamas' struggle against the Palestinian Authority. After winning the 2006 elections in Gaza, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007. As long as Hamas plays a central role in Palestinian affairs, no real Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is possible.

The turmoil in the Arab world has also hardened Israeli positions in negotiations with the Palestinians. Suddenly, Israelis realize that a pillar of their national security, the peace treaty with Egypt, is in jeopardy, indicating the fragility of signed international documents. Political circumstances may change suddenly in the Middle East, making defensible borders an imperative. It is a pity that the Palestinians have not yet internalized this change and do not calibrate their aspirations to the realities on the ground.

The Amman talks, another exercise in futile diplomacy, cannot be isolated from the surrounding reality. They had no chance of success. On the bright side, they were hosted by Jordan. An enhanced Jordanian role is to be welcomed because Jordan is a much more responsible international actor than the Palestinians, who must still prove that they can build a state.

Unquestionably, the Quartet will try again to make peace. We should wish them luck.-Published 30/1/2012 ©

Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The talks are dead, long live the talks
 Maher Abukhater
While little has been said about what went on in the five rounds of exploratory talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in the Jordanian capital Amman in January, it is nevertheless evident that whatever happened has not given Palestinians faith in the resumption of serious direct negotiations any time soon.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was clear when he said that the talks have reached an impasse and that the parties have failed to reach any concrete outcome on the issues of borders and security as the talks required.

As a result, Abbas started a series of meetings with top brass decision-makers in his Fateh movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with plans for more meetings with Arab leaders, to seek answers about the next move. At the same time, he is facing intense pressure from western countries and from the United Nations to continue indefinitely in the talks.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was the first to urge Abbas to stay on the current course. She was followed by the Irish and Canadian foreign ministers. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the German foreign minister, and US special envoy David Hale are all expected in the region in the coming days bearing sticks and carrots to persuade Abbas to continue in the discussions.

One Palestinian official, a member of the PLO executive committee, summed up the talks, saying that everything Israel offered in the meetings and all the international pressure on Abbas was meant to accommodate Israel's interests--as if Palestinians were not supposed to have interests of their own.

Palestinians seem united in their view that the talks and negotiations are not leading anywhere. As Fateh official Azzam al-Ahmad said, "Those who did not present anything of substance in all of these meetings are not going to have anything new in any other meetings."

In his meeting with Fateh's central committee on Sunday, Abbas asked his party to start thinking about the next step. He will ask the same of the PLO executive committee and the Arab League's follow-up committee on the peace process when they meet next week.

It is no secret that many influential Arab countries, including Jordan, are demanding that Abbas return to direct negotiations with Israel with no preconditions. (This is also Israel's demand.) Abbas, therefore, is not only under pressure from western countries, but his own Arab backers are also leaning on him to keep talking to Israel.

Palestinian analysts are not hopeful that Abbas has many options open to him. He can threaten to go to the United Nations again to seek full membership, or he can threaten to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, or resign, or whatever else, they say. But all these threats have been made repeatedly in the past and none were carried out.

Every time the talks reach a dead end, someone comes up with a new initiative that keeps the parties directly engaged. Jordan's King Abdullah pushed for exploratory talks held in the presence of his foreign minister. Today, Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators that include the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has come up with a new initiative that calls on Israel to present the Palestinians with goodwill gestures in return for staying and talking.

"So what is the next step?", I asked the analysts. "More and more negotiations", was the answer.

They recalled Abbas' own words that negotiation is his "only option"--even though sometimes he spices this up with calls for non-violent popular resistance.

Since Abbas was elected in 2005 on a platform of negotiations as the only way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and since international aid is directly linked to the course of negotiations, the choices open to Abbas and the Palestinian people are very limited, regardless of what more radical members of Fateh or the PLO want.-Published 30/1/2012 ©

Maher Abukhater is a journalist.