Analysis: Middle East talks may be more for show than substance

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to meet today in Amman for the first time in a year primarily because each side wants to show the international community that it is not the obstacle to peacemaking.

But it is unlikely the two sides will agree on a resumption of the peace process – the gaps in their positions are too wide and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has neither the predisposition nor external pressure that would lead him to address Palestinian expectations, demands and preconditions, foremost among them that he freeze Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Another key precondition dismissed by Mr Netanyahu is that he agree to base negotiations on the border between Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 war.

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Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had originally specified there would be no meetings with Israeli officials unless the preconditions were met and he is under fire from hard-liners for agreeing to today’s session. But when Jordan, backed by the Middle East peacemaking quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN pushed for the meeting, Mr Abbas calculated that he could not afford to say no to King Abdallah, his foremost ally.

Jordan is anxious that the meeting take place because, facing instability in neighboring Iraq and Syria, it wants to avoid a deterioration in the West Bank and it hopes Israeli-Palestinian talks can stabilise the situation. The Netanyahu government, for its part, while unwilling to make territorial concessions for a substantive peace process, does not want to appear as the rejectionist in the eyes of international opinion.

“This is all a charade on the part of the Palestinians and Israel”, said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

In Mr Alpher’s view, the gaps between the two sides on core issues such as settlements, borders and refugees are too wide to be bridged alone or with a mediator such as the quartet. Only the US can bring them together, but it lacks the will to do so during an presidential election year.

Mr Netanyahu made clear in a recent Knesset speech that because of instability in the Arab world, he is against major concessions to the Palestinians more than ever. “I will not establish Israel’s policy on illusions. There is a huge upheaval here. Whoever doesn’t see it is burying his head in the sand.” he said.

Israel has been tightening its grip on the West Bank and the East Jerusalem area Palestinians envision as the capital of their future state. Last week Israel reached agreement with hard-line settlers giving legal standing to an unauthorised settler outpost in the northern West Bank that Israel had previously promised to remove.

Mr Abbas will have to make a tough decision whether to agree to further meetings iknowing he will get little from Mr Netanayahu. If he chooses to do so, he will score some points with Jordan, the EU and the US and slow down the reconciliation process with the militant Hamas group. But at the same time, he will lose credibility domestically.