TEL AVIV — Amid much skepticism and with little expectations for a breakthrough, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet today in Amman, Jordan, in an effort to resume negotiations.
This is a personal victory for Jordan’s King Abdullah who succeeded where the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations failed. It is also a personal victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted on direct negotiations with the Palestinians and refused to negotiate through international intermediaries.
In order to fully understand the meaning of Jordan’s success, we have to go back to Sept. 23, 2011, just hours after the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, submitted to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon his application for full membership of "Palestine" in the international body. Unable to receive the support of at least nine members of the Security Council and fearing an American veto in case he did, Abbas turned to other international bodies.
Palestine was admitted to UNESCO but the price this international organization paid was very high: The U.S. suspended its financial contribution, which was about 60 per cent of UNESCO’s annual budget. Abbas was forced to delay his application for membership in the World Health Organization and similar other international bodies, fearing similar American moves.
Instead, the Quartet of the U.S., Europe, Russia and the UN issued on Sept. 26 a "road map for peace" and invited Israel and the Palestinians to submit their views on the West Bank.
Israel agreed to submit its views, only as part of direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
On Dec. 14, the Quartet delegation came to Jerusalem and Ramallah to prepare for the resumption of the peace talks. Abbas gave the delegation a cold shoulder. He rejected the idea of direct negotiations with Israel unless it agreed to a total freeze of settlement-building in the West Bank. The paper outlined the Palestinian views on the future borders, based on the 1967 ceasefire lines, with a possible exchange of 1.9 per cent of the West Bank for exactly the same size of territory in Israel proper.
On the issue of security, Abbas agreed to a peacekeeping force in the Jordan Valley, but with no Israeli participation. The toughest point, however, was Abbas’s refusal to submit his proposal directly to Israel; he insisted on negotiating through the Quartet.
Israel refused to submit its own paper to the Quartet. It argued that its partner for peace is Abbas, not the Quartet.
This Israeli position was backed by both the U.S. and the Quartet.
It was at this point Jordan’s King Hussein entered the scene. With Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak gone and Saudi Arabia more concerned about Iran and Iraq and Persian Gulf security, Jordan’s King Abdullah injected himself into the process, with Syria facing a popular uprising and with Hamas seeking an alternative base to Damascus, the Jordanian monarch undertook an unusual step. He flew to Ramallah, without stopping also in Israel. Through his security apparatus, he informed Israel about his visit to Ramallah and explained his motive — to convince Mahmoud Abbas in view of the turmoil in the Arab world and the looming American presidential elections, Abbas has no choice but to drop his objection to negotiating directly with Israel.
The king knew it’s hard for Abbas to undertake such a move. But there are changes in the international scene. Sooner or later, Assad will go and Hamas won’t be able to count on Syrian support. Hamas’s ability to oppose Abbas move will be limited.
The king did not receive an immediate answer to his initiative. Instead, he invited Israel’s President Shimon Peres to Amman.
He also flew to Berlin to recruit the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel. King Abdullah knew both Peres and Merkel have great influence on Netanyahu. He was not wrong. Netanyahu agreed to show flexibility. Instead of insisting on a summit between him and Abbas, he agreed today’s meeting in Amman will be held between his emissary, Attorney General Isaac Molcho, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat.
The meetings will be hosted by Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Joudeh and in the presence of the Quartet’s special envoy, Tony Blair. Then, Joudeh will host a private meeting between Molcho and Erekat, where both will hand each other his country’s views on borders and security.
One should not be surprised if both sides will express disappointment that their mutual proposals did not satisfy their mutual expectations. Today’s meeting is meant to be the icebreaker, after such a long period of no negotiations. Both sides have until Jan. 26 to submit their final proposals. If the proposals on borders and security contain enough "meat’, then the road for a Netanyahu-Abbas summit will be open.
Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East corespondent.