A key item on the agenda for Jordanian King Abdullah's meeting with President Obama on January 17 will be the fate of Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Jordan hosted a series of direct talks between Israel and the PLO which began on January 3. Israeli and Palestinian officials have agreed to conduct a fourth round of talks on January 25 -- the day before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and present a framework for a two-state solution. Israel, however, rejects the January 26 ultimatum and argues it has until March to provide a response.
This time discrepancy notwithstanding, reports from the first three direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians ostensibly indicate bleak prospects for achieving a mutually agreed settlement. The Saudi newspaper al-Watan reported that the third meeting held last Saturday failed to achieve "any progress."
However, it may be surmised that in fact the opposite is true, and that both sides are working closely toward reaching an agreement. To be sure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for leaking details to the press, which contradicts media reports suggesting progress has not been made.
In the absence of diplomacy, Abdullah fears that Israel could exploit failed talks with Palestinians by seeking to transform Jordan into a Palestinian state. Jordan occupied the West Bank after the 1948 War and ruled it until 1967. Since then, some Israeli officials have sporadically advocated the "Jordanian Option," which calls for the expulsion or relocation of Palestinians into Jordan. Last September, Abdullah spoke at length categorically rejecting any attempts to implement al-watan al-badil (the alternative homeland). However, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Jordan as "a stabilizing element in the region" and rejects any efforts which would undermine Jordan's sovereignty and abrogate Israel's peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom.
To prevent any attempt of implementing the Jordanian option while simultaneously adjusting to the unprecedented events of the Arab Spring which has strengthened Islamist parties from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, Jordan has reneged on its 1999 decision to expel Hamas. In November, Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh described the act as "a legal error" and a political mistake. On January 11, he affirmed that Hamas members would be welcomed back in Jordan following their expulsion from Syria, as long as they refrained from engaging in political activity.
Jordan can play an important role in any future peace agreement since it once ruled the West Bank and enjoys close ties with Israel and the PLO. This is a positive development which the United States should encourage.
However, Washington should also remind the Kingdom of the risks it faces in permitting Hamas to return on its soil. Even if Hamas ostensibly agrees not to engage in any political activity which could drag Jordan into direct conflict with Israel, Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. For years, Jordan has struggled with the Islamic Action Front -- the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood -- and as Islamists gain power in elections throughout the Arab world it is almost inevitable that they too demand greater representation in the Jordanian parliament.