WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met this week in Amman for face-to-face talks about how to restart talks. But observers say the two sides showed up Tuesday after more than a year of torpor not so much to talk to one another as to send messages and dispense favors to other players.
Yitzhak Molcho, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy to the talks, met with his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry.
One regional player whom both the Israelis and Palestinians hope to please is King Abdullah II of Jordan, who convened the talks together with the Quartet — the grouping of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia that guides the Middle East peace process.
The Israelis are seeking to bolster an ally who thus far has managed to ward off the Islamist tide of the Arab Spring. The Palestinian Authority’s Fatah leadership is nodding to a fellow moderate Arab regime.
“Both sides owe favors to King Abdullah,” said Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It’s not nice to turn him down, especially when both sides are interested in maintaining warm relations with the king.”
For his part, Abdullah is seeking to show his country’s Palestinian majority that he can still influence the two parties. He also is seeking to stake out a central role in the emerging new Middle East, particularly after the fall of his close ally, Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian dictator.
“Jordan lacks any anchor in the Middle East right now, and it is searching for an anchor,” said Assaf David, a Jordan expert at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “If Jordan is involved in it and can calm the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, it is very good for Jordan.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also needs to counter the Israeli-U.S. attempt to depict him as recalcitrant for refusing since October 2010 to allow peace talks unless Israel freezes settlement building.
The Quartet has set a Jan. 26 deadline for the resumption of direct negotiations.
Abbas “has to satisfy the Quartet by dropping his preconditions,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and the co-editor of bitterlemons.net, an online forum for Palestinian and Israeli thinkers.
Netanyahu, for his part, has insisted repeatedly that talks should be held without preconditions — none were set for the Amman meeting.
The purported aim of Tuesday’s talks was to set the stage for more substantive negotiations, although experts question the likelihood of such an outcome.
“Neither Abu Mazen nor Netanyahu is interested,” said Alpher, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen because he understands that if he turned down” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud “Olmert’s far-reaching offer at the end of 2008, he will never hear anything close to that from Netanyahu, and Netanyahu because he presides over a coalition not interested in sustaining a peace process.”
Since his election in 2009, Netanyahu has navigated between Obama administration demands that he make efforts to restart peace talks with the demands of a right-leaning coalition that is resistant to territorial concessions.
The prime minister’s moves toward the peace table have been matched traditionally with nods to hard-liners, and Tuesday seemed no different. Just hours before the meeting, Netanyahu’s government announced tenders for the construction of 300 new units in eastern Jerusalem, including 247 units in Har Homa, a particularly contentious new neighborhood not far from Bethlehem.
Sela said that Israel’s appearance at the peace talks was for the benefit of the international community, particularly the United States, where Netanyahu has tried to cultivate an image of himself as willing to make sacrifices for peace.
The Netanyahu government sees “the problem as not with the Palestinians" but rather "with all those who pressure Israel to make compromise,” he said. “They [the Israelis] see the problem as with the Europeans and the Americans.”
Abbas also may see the Amman meeting as a means to show Palestinians that he can deliver an alternative as he negotiates a unity deal with Hamas that could lead to elections as soon as May. His need for street credibility has been sharpened by the Arab Spring turmoil.
“Abu Mazen needs something in hand, something he can show,” Sela said. “He got very little from the bid to the U.N.” for statehood recognition in September.
In the days leading up to the Amman meeting, the Palestinians reportedly have dropped their demand for a settlement freeze, instead seeking the release of 100 prisoners before restarting talks. A prisoner release to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority would be a salve to the blow it took when Hamas, its Islamist rival in the Gaza Strip, won the release late last year of more than a thousand prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier.
Netanyahu, however, rebuffed Abbas’ request, seeing it as a precondition, according to Israeli media reports.
Don’t expect any movement on peace talks until after the U.S. election, Alpher said.
“The Obama administration in the throes of an election year is not going to take any risks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” he said.