Analysis: Low-level talks likely to continue

Despite Palestinian threats to leave the table, Jordan-sponsored peace talks are likely to continue.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 311 (R) (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 311 (R)
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
January 26, that is yesterday, came and went pretty much like the month of September – namely, with a whimper.
Remember September, the month when the Palestinians made their much-trumpeted and widely-feared play for statehood recognition at the United Nations. Defense Minister Ehud Barak prophesied a diplomatic tsunami; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned of the worst Palestinian violence Israel had ever faced; and Haaretz continuously cautioned about a third intifada.
Yet none of that materialized.
What did materialize was a new deadline, a new target for our diplomatic angst: January 26.
By that date, either Israel would give in to the Palestinian demands for renewing negotiations – which in addition to freezing all construction beyond the Green Line and accepting the 1967 lines as the baseline for future talks, now also included releasing high-profile Fatah prisoners – or else the Palestinians would call off the nascent Jordan channel and reevaluate their steps.
And what made January 26 so special? That was the deadline, according to the Palestinian calculations, that the Quartet – made up of the US, EU, Russia and UN – gave the sides for making significant progress in direct negotiations and providing each other with comprehensive proposals on security and border issues.
Israel’s position is that this particular deadline doesn’t kick in until the beginning of April.
So January 26 came and went, but nothing truly dramatic happened.
Granted, in the days up to the deadline various Palestinian spokesmen issued threats about walking away from the talks, but there has been no formal announcement to that effect.
Indeed, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Thursday, said there was no impasse in the talks.
In any case, Abbas is not expected to make any decision before the convening on February 4 in Cairo of an Arab League meeting. And at that meeting, he is expected to get a green light for continuing the talks, largely because he has no first-rate alternatives.
“Give me something substantial to remain in the talks, or else” has been the tone of Palestinian sentiment since the talks – sponsored by Jordan – began a few weeks ago. But the “or else” component of that equation does not seem that strong.
If the talks fail, Abbas essentially has two options: He could move more determinedly on reconciliation talks with Hamas, or he could go back to the unilateral track at the UN.
Neither option, however, is presently viable. The reconciliation talks with Hamas, in the works for months, are not producing real results, and rather than narrowing gaps, additional ones have emerged.
And regarding the UN option, the Palestinians do not have significant international support for returning to the UN to seek statehood recognition.
Besides, the Palestinian gambit at the UN in September did not work, and they were unable to garner the support of nine countries on the 15-member UN Security Council to force a US veto on the issue. And although the composition of the Security Council changed in January as five countries joined, and five others left, the balance of power there on the Palestinian statehood question did not tilt one way or the other.
There is always another Palestinian option, a return to violence, but this would cost the Palestinians dearly in international sympathy, one of their key assets.
One thing that Ashton’s rather low-key visit to the region this week indicated was that the Europeans have not yet concluded that Israel is to blame for an impasse in the Amman discussions, and do not believe that the Palestinians would be justified in leaving the table.
The Europeans see the talks as the only good game in town, and Israel has not supplied a sufficient reason to them for declaring the Amman channel a dead end. And if that is true of the Europeans, it is even more the case regarding Washington.
So with reconciliation with Hamas not in the offing, the UN blocked, and violence a losing diplomatic proposition, the only real option for the PA remains the low-level talks.
Senior Israeli officials have said the Palestinians are reluctant – with US President Barack Obama on the eve of elections – to negotiate seriously with Israel, because of a sense that he will not be able to pressure Israel because of electoral considerations.
While this may be true, it does not mean that all will remain motionless until November. Rather, the diplomatic goal now as seen in many capitals around the world is simply to avoid back-sliding, to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from exploding.
That is an interest of all sides: The PA, concerned about how Hamas would exploit a violent confrontation and possibly make inroads into the West Bank; Israel, which has no interest in another round of terrorist violence; the US, facing an election in November; and the Europeans, on the verge of an economic abyss.
As a result, the Palestinians are likely to continue with these lowlevel talks – though few give the discussions any chance of leading to a dramatic breakthrough – if only because right now they don’t have other workable options.