The Amman talks: Another exercise in futile diplomacy

Recent Israeli-Palestinian ‘pre-negotiations’ mark another ineffectual endeavor to bridge the gap.

Amman talks with Blair_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Amman talks with Blair_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Few should be surprised by the failure of the Amman talks, which constituted an additional attempt by the international Quartet to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). These meetings were intended to break the impasse in the peace process, after the Palestinians decided to relinquish the option of negotiations with Israel and to adopt instead a unilateral approach to attain their goals.
This unilateralism, reflected in the PA's failed attempt to gain recognition as a state at the United Nations, was not well received in the United States and most of Europe. In order to overcome the international repercussions of such a move, the Palestinians heeded the advice of the Quartet and returned reluctantly to a 'pre-negotiation' table in Amman, still committed to 'go it alone' if their territorial expectations were not fulfilled by Israel.
As expected, Israel’s offers did not satisfy Palestinian desires. Over the years, the Palestinians have rejected generous offers by past Prime Ministers Ehud Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2008). Obviously, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not do better. Not many details emerged from the Amman talks, but it seems that the Palestinian demand for Jerusalem is a serious obstacle for progress in the peace talks. Similarly, Israel?s insistence on holding on to the settlement blocs and on having a defensible border along the Jordan River does not sit well with Palestinian visions. The Palestinians hurried to accuse Israel of bad faith and intransigence in an attempt to justify their decision to halt negotiations.
Above all, the Palestinians refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state - a core issue in the history of the Arab- Israeli conflict. While Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” in 1978, the Palestinians still have not reciprocated. Denying the legitimate right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel only reinforces the majority Israeli consensus that the Palestinians are not a serious partner for peacemaking.
Indeed, the gap in positions between Israelis and Palestinians is extremely large and cannot be bridged overnight. It is totally unrealistic to expect an agreement on final status issues in the near future. The best that can be achieved is interim agreements, tacit or formal, that do not entail grave security risks for Israel. Even the Obama administration learned the hard way that conflict resolution should be replaced with conflict management. That is the only strategy that has a chance to minimize suffering on both sides and achieve a modicum of stability in a stormy Middle East.
To a great extent, the Amman talks can be seen as an international effort to maintain a facade of negotiations within the framework of a conflict management strategy. Their failure will inevitably bring about another bout of diplomatic activism in pursuit of another forum for an Israeli-Palestinian exchange of views that will similarly fail. Such failures hardly discourage professional diplomats who make an honorable living by trying to bring peace. Regional developments, namely the uprisings in the Arab world, have also contributed to the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Palestinians are quite vexed that the Arab masses have hardly mentioned the Palestinian issue, showing that it is not a main cause of instability in the Middle East. This has reduced the sense of urgency for 'solving' the Palestinian problem, as other problems have attracted much more attention. Moreover, the success of Islamist parties in premature elections in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the growing influence of Islamist groups in other parts of the Arab world, does not bode well for the peace process. While domestic concerns may force such groups toward seeming moderation, Israel is still generally viewed as an illegitimate political entity that must eventually be eradicated. This is also the position of Hamas.
Unfortunately, the 'Islamic Winter' has emboldened Hamas, enhancing its position in Palestinian society and politics. Indeed, in May 2011 the PA, out of weakness, signed a reconciliation accord with Hamas that remains to be actualized. In fact, the fragmentation and/or Islamization of states that characterizes the 'Arab Spring' was first seen in Hamas’ struggle against the PA. After winning the 2006 elections in Gaza, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007. As long as Hamas plays a central role in Palestinian affairs, no real Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is possible.
The turmoil in the Arab world has also hardened Israeli positions in negotiations with the Palestinians. Suddenly, Israelis realize that a pillar of their national security, the peace treaty with Egypt, is in jeopardy, indicating the fragility of signed international documents. Political circumstances may change suddenly in the Middle East, making defensible borders an imperative. It is a pity that the Palestinians have not yet internalized this change and do not calibrate their aspirations to the realities on the ground. Unfortunately, realism is hardly part of the maximalist Palestinian political culture.
The Amman talks, another exercise in futile diplomacy, cannot be isolated from the surrounding reality. They had no chance of success. On the bright side, they were hosted by Jordan. An enhanced Jordanian role is to be welcomed because Jordan is a much more responsible international actor than the Palestinians, who must still prove that they can build a state. Unquestionably, the Quartet will try again to make peace. We should wish them luck.
Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was initially published by and by BESA on January 30, 2012.