The Palestinian Israeli meetings that took place in Amman Tuesday and are to be repeated next week took many by surprise. After all, the Palestinian leadership has been resisting for months responding to tremendous pressures to go back to negotiations without conditions. Furthermore it has become conventional wisdom that as the U.S. and possibly Israel move into an election year there is nothing of substance that can be accomplished in talks that have not before.
While all this might be conventional thinking, the reality on the ground is not the same. In some ways Jordan provides the perfect way out of an impasse. Both sides for totally different reasons need a semblance of talks now.
Palestinian need to show that they are not total rejectionists. Mahmoud Abbas has taken a hardline position since the summer by going to the UN and defying the Americans. Palestinians have been punished for that (U.S. congress blocking aid) in different ways. Returning to talk as normal would appear to be capitulation and so preliminary discussions in a third country appear to be a convenient compromise.
Palestinians wanted to and say they still insist on the need for a total freeze on settlement activity. Jordan used softer terminology saying that both sides need to refrain from unilateral actions that are provocative. Staying up on the ladder of no talks until all settlements are frozen makes a lot of political sense especially when it was also the U.S. position, but for over a year the Obama administration had long abandoned this demand leaving Palestinians up on a tree without a ladder to come down.
By going to Amman, the Palestinians are slowly climbing down the ladder. Although they are not totally surrendering but they are avoiding destroying decades of attempts at keeping their relations with the U.S. at reasonable levels.
Politically, by going to Jordan and having the Jordanian foreign minister obtain the blessing of the Arab follow up committee, the Palestinian leadership also ensures that relations with Arabs are improved especially as the crucial reconciliation talks and upcoming elections are scheduled to take place next May. Palestinians can counter repeated Israeli claims that they want to talk (anywhere and any time) but that the Palestinians are the ones refusing.
While there is no confirmation of any quid pro quo, some rumors have been circulating about a possible Israeli release of some long term PLO prisoners. This would weaken the gains made by Hamas after they succeeded in getting hundreds released in exchange of the captured Israeli soldier. If this is the case and if among those released is one Marwan Barghouti, then the Fatah success in the coming elections (provided Abbas continues to insist on not running) will be ensued.
It is obvious that for Israelis the meetings, any meeting are better than the present boycott by Palestinians and it deflects criticism that Israel is obstructing peace. The meetings are also important for the US and the Quartet which has been unable to yield any concrete results and they have been appearing weaker and weaker in the face of the Netanyahu intransigence.
For Jordan, holding the meetings in their capital is a big boost to this strategically important but regional weak country. With the post Mubarak Egyptian government totally engulfed in the aftershocks of the January 25th revolution, Jordan is the perfect replacement. Jordan, the only other Arab country with a peace treaty with Israel can play a neutral and honest arbitrator role between the parties while at the same time continue to be an ally to the Palestinian cause.
While all parties needed these talks for totally different reasons, the fact remains that these talks are unlikely to produce any major breakthroughs. Negotiators will spin their wheels in the coming months waiting to find out the results of the Arab spring, Palestinian elections as well as the outcome of the U.S. presidential poll and the possible Israeli parliamentary elections. As the people of the region watch the comings and goings of negotiations to the Jordanian capital, what will happen inside the negotiating room will be nothing more than shadow boxing. No one will attempt a punch let alone a knockout one, they all know it will take some major outside help -- namely from Washington before any breakthroughs will be accomplished.