Tel Aviv — Israeli and Palestinian negotiation envoys met for the first time this week in more than a year, but the expectations on both sides for any substantive breakthrough in the coming months have never been lower.
Normally, the first direct meeting of the sides since September 2010 would be considered a breakthrough in itself. And King Abdullah of Jordan’s decision to host talks in Amman for the first time is also a new development.
But observers believe that neither side is genuinely interested in getting down to the horse trading necessary for a deal. And even if they were, the maximum compromises that Israelis and Palestinians are capable of making aren’t enough to bridge the gap.
“I suggest you don’t hold your breath,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign affairs ministry. “It’s a meeting to go through the motions for both sides. It’s a waste of gasoline” to travel.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said there was no breakthrough on substance, but that the sides agreed to meet again soon. According to Israel Television, he said that in the future, some of the meetings would be held in secret.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority threatened to push a resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning Israeli settlements — a move that would isolate Israel and the United States.
Officially, Israel wants the Palestinians to drop their longstanding negotiations precondition of a settlement freeze. But the prime minister is highly unlikely to discuss a plan for dividing Jerusalem into two capitals or a border with the Palestinians because it will put him on a collision course with hard-line ideologues in his coalition (as did a 10-month settlement moratorium during 2010).
What’s more, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the regional instability from the Arab Spring will force Israel to demand even more in security guarantees to offset the high risks of trading land for peace.
On the other side, even if mediators could find a way to coax President Mahmoud Abbas down from demanding a settlement freeze, the Palestinian leader is under increased pressure from a growing tide of political Islam across the region that is bolstering its rival Hamas.
While Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is barnstorming across the region on his first diplomatic tour, Hamas spokespeople in Gaza called on the Palestinians to boycott the talks.
Furthermore, the Obama administration isn’t expected to be actively engaged in the peace process this year while the president runs for re-election.
Ron Pundak, who was part of the talks that eventually produced the Oslo Accords, said that Israel won’t come under international pressure in coming year despite the vacuum in talks. And despite Palestinian threats of new attempts to isolate Israel, they are unlikely to repeat their appeal for international recognition for fear of U.S. sanctions, said Pundak, who directs the Peres Center for Peace.
“The current Israeli government is quiet happy with the situation,” he said “There is no pressure from the Americans or from the Europeans. The Palestinians are weak, the Arabs are engaged in their internal intifadas and the task of Netanyahu today is to do what [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman described: to manage the situation” instead of resolving the conflict.
To be sure, the so-called “Quartet” of international peace mediators — the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — is pushing a plan to the return to talks in which the sides are supposed to start of talks on security arrangements and a common border by Jan. 26.
But few believe that this goal will be met. Even those who are normally the most vigilant — the Jewish settlers — are not worried about the current round of talks.
“We understand that Abu Mazen no longer represents the Palestinians,” said Naftali Bennett, who stepped down last week as the director of the Yesha Council. “His term expired two years ago. It’s like negotiating buying a house with someone who doesn’t own it.”
One former Israeli diplomat said that both sides agreed to the meeting mainly so as not to be accused by the international community as the peace process spoiler. The Palestinians wanted to show the U.S. and Europe that they are making an effort to restart talks despite their objection to settlement expansion.
“Both sides are trying to avoid being blamed by the Quartet for being an obstacle to the process,” said the former diplomat. “The fundamentals are so contrary to progress. It’s very hard to see in the present dynamic why either side wants to go.”
If the Palestinians are eager to please the U.S., Israel has been eager to make a gesture toward Jordan.
Abdullah is one of the Jewish state’s remaining strategic partners in the region, but he has been acerbic in his criticism of Netanyahu over the years.
Though Liel said that Jordan wouldn’t make for an effective mediator because of its support for the Palestinians, King Abdullah has pressed the Palestinians. In a visit to Ramallah last month, he urged them find a way back to negotiations despite Palestinians demands on a settlement freeze.
By hosting the peace talks — even if they are doomed to remain muddled —Abdullah is asserting himself within and beyond Jordan’s borders. The summit is a sign to domestic Islamist opposition emboldened by the Arab Spring that the king remains a regional player. The king is also partially filling the vacuum of diplomacy that opened up by Egypt, which remains mired in domestic political debates.
“Where the Americans have failed, King Abdullah seems to have succeeded,” said Gershon Baskin, a former director at the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information.
“I hope that plays out well for the continued mediation role. Both Israelis and Palestinians understand that the Jordanian monarchy is at a crucial stage right now with the continued stability of the regime, and neither side want to contribute to the destabilization of the Hashemite kingdom. When King Abdullah came and said, ‘You have to do this not only for yourselves but for me,’ that was pretty good reason.”