While little has been said about what went on in the five rounds of exploratory talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in the Jordanian capital Amman in January, it is nevertheless evident that whatever happened has not given Palestinians faith in the resumption of serious direct negotiations any time soon.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was clear when he said that the talks have reached an impasse and that the parties have failed to reach any concrete outcome on the issues of borders and security as the talks required.
As a result, Abbas started a series of meetings with top brass decision-makers in his Fateh movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with plans for more meetings with Arab leaders, to seek answers about the next move. At the same time, he is facing intense pressure from western countries and from the United Nations to continue indefinitely in the talks.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was the first to urge Abbas to stay on the current course. She was followed by the Irish and Canadian foreign ministers. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the German foreign minister, and US special envoy David Hale are all expected in the region in the coming days bearing sticks and carrots to persuade Abbas to continue in the discussions.
One Palestinian official, a member of the PLO executive committee, summed up the talks, saying that everything Israel offered in the meetings and all the international pressure on Abbas was meant to accommodate Israel's interests--as if Palestinians were not supposed to have interests of their own.
Palestinians seem united in their view that the talks and negotiations are not leading anywhere. As Fateh official Azzam al-Ahmad said, "Those who did not present anything of substance in all of these meetings are not going to have anything new in any other meetings."
In his meeting with Fateh's central committee on Sunday, Abbas asked his party to start thinking about the next step. He will ask the same of the PLO executive committee and the Arab League's follow-up committee on the peace process when they meet next week.
It is no secret that many influential Arab countries, including Jordan, are demanding that Abbas return to direct negotiations with Israel with no preconditions. (This is also Israel's demand.) Abbas, therefore, is not only under pressure from western countries, but his own Arab backers are also leaning on him to keep talking to Israel.
Palestinian analysts are not hopeful that Abbas has many options open to him. He can threaten to go to the United Nations again to seek full membership, or he can threaten to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, or resign, or whatever else, they say. But all these threats have been made repeatedly in the past and none were carried out.
Every time the talks reach a dead end, someone comes up with a new initiative that keeps the parties directly engaged. Jordan's King Abdullah pushed for exploratory talks held in the presence of his foreign minister. Today, Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators that include the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has come up with a new initiative that calls on Israel to present the Palestinians with goodwill gestures in return for staying and talking.
"So what is the next step?", I asked the analysts. "More and more negotiations", was the answer.
They recalled Abbas' own words that negotiation is his "only option"--even though sometimes he spices this up with calls for non-violent popular resistance.
Since Abbas was elected in 2005 on a platform of negotiations as the only way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and since international aid is directly linked to the course of negotiations, the choices open to Abbas and the Palestinian people are very limited, regardless of what more radical members of Fateh or the PLO want.