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    Middle East
     Jan 31, 2012

Theatrical failure of peace talks
By Victor Kotsev

The Palestinians demand a clear Israeli position on borders (the borders of a prospective Palestinian state). Against all odds, the Palestinians receive a clear Israeli position on borders. The Palestinians then abandon the negotiations, blaming Israel.

There are many ways to interpret this sequence of events (the best estimate available to the media of what happened at the conclusion of the not-so-secret peace talks in Jordan), and not all interpretations are favorable to Israel. However, one must admit that, yet again, there is a certain amount of irony in the theatrics of the Palestinian behavior, even if the motivation behind it is presumed to be perfectly rational.

Breaking off the peace talks is in some ways the most rational thing to do at the moment, given the storm that is gathering in the


Middle East. And while apocalyptic speculation over an impending major war remains just that, speculation, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so fragile that even the smallest outbreak of violence threatens to derail it. Something like a fairly minor domestic cataclysm in Egypt is capable of accomplishing that, let alone a military confrontation in the restive Gaza Strip or a full-blown descent of Syria into chaos.

The talks, which started at the initiative of Jordan's King Abdullah II and with the enthusiastic backing of the Quartet on the Middle East, apparently served their purpose: to register activity and to allow Jordan to take on a larger role in Palestinian politics. In a less visible parallel reconciliation process, the Palestinian Hamas movement seems to be eyeing Jordan as its next base, and talks between the rival Palestinian factions seem to be in the works.

The first direct meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in over a year was held early this month in Amman; the last meeting in the series, culminating in the failure of the initiative, was held days ago. The excuse for the discussions had been a Quartet statement, issued in response to the Palestinian application for membership in the United Nations in September, for "the parties to come forward with comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security, and to have made substantial progress within six months".

Almost to the last, the Quartet - and specifically the European Union - clung to the hope that the talks could lead to higher-level negotiations. As recently as last Wednesday, European Union officials were reportedly trying to pressure Israel into offering further concessions to the Palestinians. [1]

Yet the signs had not been good, practically since the start of the talks. A couple of weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israeli lawmakers that the Palestinians "will not budge a nanometer". A week ago, an open confrontation between the two chief negotiators reportedly took place, with the Palestinians blocking a presentation on security issues by an Israeli military official.

"I do not have the mandate to negotiate security arrangements until you present detailed documents with your position on the issue of borders and on the security issue," the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly said, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. [2]

There had been some talk about a more clear Israeli position on borders in the next couple of months (something that Netanyahu had resisted making public), but the Israeli negotiators apparently surprised everybody when they offered an outline last Wednesday. It was a vague outline, delivered only verbally. Ha'aretz writes that "One of the principles that [Israeli negotiator Isaac] Molho presented was that in any permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, most of the Israelis who live in the West Bank will remain in Israeli territory, while the Palestinians in the West Bank will be in the area allotted for a future Palestinian state." [3]

The Palestinians announced the talks dead almost immediately, though a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is expected to formalize this decision on Monday. "[The Israeli negotiator] killed the two-state solution, set aside previous agreements and international law," a PLO official told Reuters. "Basically, the Israeli idea of a Palestinian state is made up of a wall and settlements." [4]

According to another Ha'aretz report, "Palestinian officials said on Friday that the Israeli delegation's proposal would in practice have created borders based on the route of Israel's security fence. They said Israel was also demanding the right to retain East Jerusalem and Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinian sources said this would divide Palestinian territory into cantons and deprive a future state of territorial contiguity." [5]

This language is consistent with older Palestinian accusations against Netanyahu and his predecessors. To their credit, the Palestinians reportedly submitted detailed proposals of their own, in writing, weeks ago.

Still, neither the vagueness of the Israeli outlines nor the difference between the positions of the two sides seems to be the real reason behind the collapse of the talks. Many, if not most observers had assumed that the negotiations were still-born from the start; in fact, both Israelis and Palestinians - and also their foreign go-betweens - had been looking for an excuse to restart the talks ever since it became clear that the Palestinian bid for independence at the UN would run into stiff opposition. For a moment, all sides saw talking, no matter the content of the discussions, as the next best alternative to violence (and violence as a dead-end), and jumped at the first available opportunity.

For Jordan, the opportunity that presented itself carries additional benefits and risks. Both Egypt and Syria - the two heavyweight Arab regional players, involved intimately in the Palestinian affairs - are rocked by instability, which in turn creates a power vacuum in the Levant. For Jordan, the majority of whose population is of Palestinian descent, this comes at a particularly sensitive moment. The Palestinian national aspirations, expressed officially at the UN in the last months, can threaten the territorial integrity, and indeed the existence, of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Not so - or less so - if the Jordanian government has the Palestinians in a bear hug, dependent on it for both their internal affairs and their international contacts. It is hardly surprising that in parallel to the Israeli-Palestinian process, and somewhat hidden from public scrutiny by it, another deal has been in the making.

This weekend, Hamas' leader Khaled Meshaal visited Jordan for the first time since he was expelled from there over 12 years ago. "Jordan belongs to the Jordanians and Palestine to the Palestinians," was somewhat predictably one of the main messages he made in the Jordanian capital. [6]

His visit, too, had been in the works for some months - in fact, it was being arranged at roughly the same time as King Abdullah started pushing for the Israeli-Palestinian talks. [7] The latest reports claim that Meshaal has decided to leave Damascus permanently, and by all accounts Amman would be near the top of his wish-list as a prospective location for his new headquarters.
Such a relocation could also theoretically be accompanied by an intra-Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO - a process that has also hit a dead-end several times in the past months. Rumor has it that with the end of this most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, negotiations between the rival Palestinian groups are the next highest item on the Jordanian agenda.

Whether such talks have a serious chance of succeeding, or if that in turn would lead to more talks or to more violence with Israel, is impossible to tell. For now, a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is out of sight, but negotiations on various levels are often a preferred alternative to violence, and rightly so.

While the Israeli government in principle refuses to negotiate with Hamas (and vice versa), the prisoner swap that took place between them months ago suggests otherwise. Last year, Netanyahu had suggested that a prisoner swap could be a confidence-building measure that could lead to a more serious engagement.

1. EU working on Israeli incentives package for PA, Ynet, January 25, 2012.
2. Israeli, Palestinian negotiators clash at Jordan meeting, Ha'aretz, January 25, 2012.
3. Israel presents the Palestinians with its stance on borders, Ha'aretz, January 26, 2012.
4. Palestinians unmoved as Israel presents border ideas, Reuters, January 27, 2012.
5. Abbas: Israel to blame for failed peace talks in Jordan, January 29, 2012.
6. Mashaal in Amman: No Palestinian state in Jordan, , Jerusalem Post, January 29, 2012.
7. Jordan seeks Palestinian respect by offering Hamas a new home, Ha'aretz, November 23, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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