The Amman preliminary peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were suspended after the latest session adjourned on January 26. At the time of writing, it was not clear whether the Jordanian and Quartet organizers could persuade PLO leaders to return for more in February. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas intends to consult with the Arab League before deciding.
Whether or not the talks resume, the realistic expectation of their outcome will almost certainly not be to usher in serious final status talks. So what are the sponsors and the participants up to? In reality, each and every concerned party put on a good show in Amman for reasons not related to a two-state solution.
Beginning with the hosts, the Hashemite kingdom sees a useful opportunity in Cairo's preoccupation with revolutionary transition: it can present Amman as alternative patron of Israeli-Palestinian peace. This enables King Abdullah II to appease the Palestinian sector of Jordan's population by showing that Jordan can play a positive role. By taking the international stage, the king also presents an enhanced leadership profile to other sectors in Jordan that have been critical of his leadership. And by working with the non-Islamist PLO, it is easier for him to fend off Islamist pressures--to enhance the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan or to host the Hamas leadership for anything beyond a photo-op visit, which is precisely what he did in late January.
That the king has no real hopes regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace process can be gleaned from his decision to delegate Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh to run the Amman meetings. Judeh in fact functions as little more than a high-level information officer for the kingdom; he is no Kissinger.
The PLO leadership under Abbas has understood ever since the conclusion of its talks with Israel's Olmert government in 2008 that the substantive gaps between the two sides' positions on issues like holy places and the right of return are unbridgeable. Renewed talks have no chance of success if the objective is a two-state solution that ends all claims. Hence Abbas is busying himself with alternatives like United Nations recognition and resolving Fateh's differences with Hamas. The PLO is also waiting to see how the fortunes of Arab revolution affect its standing and its capacity to negotiate. Basically, its agenda in Amman has been to humor King Abdullah and the Quartet, whose good will it needs, particularly in fending off possible inroads by Hamas.
The Netanyahu government in Israel also has an interest in boosting the prestige of the Hashemite kingdom. Israeli governments have traditionally seen Jordan as both a strategic buffer between Israel and aggression from the east, and a potential moderating factor in the Palestinian equation. Under present circumstances, Israeli refusal to attend the talks in Amman could have provoked yet further deterioration in already poor Jordanian-Israeli relations.
As for the international factor, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands that the Obama administration will not exercise serious pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinian issue during a US election year, he does not wish to take on the entire Quartet needlessly, especially when he knows that the PLO's impatience with these unconditional pre-negotiations plays in Israel's favor. Netanyahu also knows that in any event, the gaps between the two sides talking in Amman render serious negotiations--the kind that might compromise Netanyahu's hard-line government--extremely unlikely.
Besides, Netanyahu is contemplating elections in Israel this year and wants to appeal to centrist voters by demonstrating how "reasonable" Israel can be in negotiations with the Palestinians. Accordingly, on January 26 Netanyahu's delegate to the Amman talks, Yitzhak Molcho, finally presented an official position regarding territorial issues. He sketched out a two-state border not close to the 1967 lines, with no Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Not only is this far from the Palestinian position, and not only does it not approach the demands of the Quartet, but Molcho's lines are equally unacceptable to the more hawkish factions in Netanyahu's coalition.
Netanyahu apparently reasons that he can take chances with his coalition in an election year and can defend this position to the Israeli electorate, while Washington will not bother him about it at least in the year ahead. (Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereket refused even to listen to a presentation of Israeli security concerns by an Israeli army general, thereby rendering Netanyahu's negotiating life even easier.)
Finally, there is the Quartet itself and its component members: the United States, European Union, UN and Russia. The very raison d'etre of this body and its representative Tony Blair is a peace process. Apparently any process will do, even the kind of frustrating and pointless one we are witnessing, especially in an American, French and Russian election year.
Yet the Quartet can assert that "any kind of dialogue is better than none" only up to a point. Rather than reassessing the failures of the Oslo formula and coming up with a new model, the Quartet pursues a path of folly. If I didn't know better, I would have to invoke that definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein: "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results".