Hassan Barari
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
February 9, 2012 - 1:00am

Jordan's recent efforts to hold exploratory pre-negotiation talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis could not be more surprising. Over an extended period of time, King Abdullah II has reiterated his conviction that peace, although favorable, is not yet possible. Time and again, he has blamed Israel for the impasse in the peace process. Therefore, the sudden emergence of Amman's diplomatic activism is striking.
The Jordanian press was full of pessimistic articles and reports regarding the prospects of the Amman talks. The common theme was the anticipated failure of this diplomatic activism. In fact, very few shared the optimism of Jordan's foreign minister, who hosted the meetings. We all know that the conditions are not yet ripe for a genuine jumpstart to this process. Interestingly, some Jordanians mocked the entire futile exercise by pondering how a country as small as Jordan could succeed in doing what the United States has failed to do.

A source in Jordan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who prefers to remain anonymous told me that Jordan knew well that the chances for a breakthrough were slim. The timing of the meeting had more to do with a previously planned visit by the king to the United States. He added that to avert any expected American pressure on the issue of reform, the king wanted to see President Barack Obama with something in his hand: his attempt at pre-negotiations.

This explanation is in part true. Yet, Jordan's quest for peace is genuine. After the demise of the Egyptian role in the process and in view of the spread of the "Arab spring", Jordan decided to step in and be proactive to avert bleak future scenarios. Equally important, the timing of the Amman talks was a reflection of other goings-on in the region. The Arab spring revolutions hardly refer to Palestine, thus sending the message that the Palestinian question--once the main issue in Arab politics--has to be placed on the back burner for a while. Jordanian officials cannot be happy with this development, as the peace process is a means of keeping Jordan relevant.

Jordan's success in convening the parties to the conflict should not be inflated. The Palestine Liberation Organization understands that Israel is not yet ready for a genuine peace process and that Hamas has been emboldened by the victory of Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia. For PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a peace process can help keep him relevant. On the other hand, Israel benefits from a peace process because it minimizes pressure on the government and discourages the PLO from seeking unilateral steps in the international arena.

And yet, neither the PLO nor the Israeli government is optimistic that the Amman talks will lead even to an agreed framework for discussing the final status issues. Put differently, the gap between the PLO and Israel is too wide for a country as small as Jordan to bridge.

Unsurprisingly, both Israel and the PLO resorted to the usual blame game. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian politician, said, "these meetings revealed Israel's insistence to continue settlement activities and its refusal of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders." After the fifth round of talks held in Amman, the PLO said that Israel had moved not one step closer to peace negotiations. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of stalling the talks by refusing to discuss Israeli security concerns and by insisting on a vision for "unrealistic" borders.

King Abdullah is not happy with the progress of the Amman talks. Implicit in his most recent statements is his frustration at Israel's tactics at the talks. He stopped short of threatening to take measures that could hurt Israel if the latter continues to stall the peace talks. In any case, this is easier said than done: for Israel to offer the desired concessions, a different constellation of political power has to emerge there.

In brief, it seems that Jordan did not think thoroughly of what would happen if its diplomatic initiative failed. Will Jordan impose sanctions on Israel, as recently leaked? How will this affect its ability to mediate again if conditions change? Did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do its homework properly in the run-up to the exploratory meetings?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this entire exercise was a futile one. For peace to materialize, a certain set of conditions must emerge; so far they have not. History teaches us that only the United States can intervene successfully--and even that, not always. Therefore, we should not raise expectations for what a small state can do.


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