The Palestinian-Israeli meeting that was held in Amman on Tuesday and is to be repeated next week took many by surprise. After all, the Palestinian leadership has been resisting for months to respond to tremendous pressure to go back to negotiations without conditions.
Furthermore, it has become customary that as the US and possibly Israel move into an election year, there is nothing of substance that can be accomplished through talks.
While all this might be conventional thinking, the reality on the ground is different. In some ways Jordan provides the perfect way out of the impasse. Palestinians and Israelis, for totally different reasons, need to appear to talk now.
Palestinians need to show that they are not total rejectionists. Their president, Mahmoud Abbas, has taken a hardline position since summer by going to the UN and defying the Americans. Palestinians have been punished for that (US Congress blocked aid) in different ways. Returning to talk as if nothing happened would appear to be capitulation, and so preliminary discussions in a third country appear to be a convenient compromise.
Palestinians wanted, and still insist on the need for, a total freeze of settlement activity. Jordan uses softer terminology, saying that both sides need to refrain from unilateral actions that are provocative.
Refusing to talk until all settlement activity is frozen makes a lot of political sense, especially as it was also the US position, even though for over a year now the Obama administration has abandoned this demand.
By going to Amman, although they are not totally surrendering, the Palestinians are avoiding destroying decades of attempts at keeping their relations with the US reasonable.
Politically, by going to Jordan and having the Jordanian foreign minister obtain the blessing of the Arab follow-up committee, the Palestinian leadership also ensures that relations with Arabs are improved, especially as the crucial reconciliation talks and upcoming elections are scheduled to take place next May. Palestinians can thus counter repeated Israeli claims that they want to talk (anywhere and any time) but that the Palestinians are the ones refusing.
While there is no confirmation, some rumours have been circulating about a possible Israeli release of some long-term PLO prisoners. This would weaken the gains made by Hamas after it succeeded to get hundreds released in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier. If this is the case, and if among those released is Marwan Barghouthi, the Fateh success in the coming elections (provided Abbas continues to insist on not running) will be ensured.
It is obvious that for Israelis the meetings, any meeting, are better than the present boycott by Palestinians; they deflect criticism that Israel is obstructing peace.
The meetings are also important for the US and the Quartet, which has been unable to yield any concrete results and has been appearing weaker and weaker in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence.
Holding the meetings in Amman also boosts the country. With the post-Mubarak Egyptian government totally engulfed in the aftershocks of the January 25 revolution, Jordan is the perfect replacement. Jordan, the only other Arab country with a peace treaty with Israel, can play a neutral and honest arbitrator role between the parties while at the same time continue to be an ally of the Palestinians.
While all parties need these talks for different reasons, the fact remains that they are unlikely to produce any major breakthrough.
Negotiators will spin their wheels in the coming months waiting to see the results of the Arab Spring, Palestinian elections as well as the outcome of the US presidential election and of possible Israeli parliamentary elections.
As the people of the region watch the negotiations in Amman, the talks can be expected to be nothing more than shadow boxing. No one will attempt a punch, let alone a knockout one; they all know it will take some major outside help –” namely from Washington –” before any breakthrough can be achieved.