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Edition 6 Volume 10 - February 10, 2012

The Amman talks: Jordan's role

A futile exercise?  - Hassan A. Barari
The peace process is a means of keeping Jordan relevant.

Why has Jordan succeeded where others failed?  - Oraib Al-Rantawi
Jordan's leadership is under increasing pressure from the Jordanian public.

Jordan needs continued talks  - Mohammad K. Shiyyab
The talks may be an important factor in stabilizing the situation in Jordan itself.

Jordan re-enters the fray  - Naseem Tarawnah
For Jordan, the status of Palestine is a domestic issue.

A futile exercise?
 Hassan A. Barari

Jordan's recent efforts to hold exploratory pre-negotiation talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis could not be more surprising. Over an extended period of time, King Abdullah II has reiterated his conviction that peace, although favorable, is not yet possible. Time and again, he has blamed Israel for the impasse in the peace process. Therefore, the sudden emergence of Amman's diplomatic activism is striking.

The Jordanian press was full of pessimistic articles and reports regarding the prospects of the Amman talks. The common theme was the anticipated failure of this diplomatic activism. In fact, very few shared the optimism of Jordan's foreign minister, who hosted the meetings. We all know that the conditions are not yet ripe for a genuine jumpstart to this process. Interestingly, some Jordanians mocked the entire futile exercise by pondering how a country as small as Jordan could succeed in doing what the United States has failed to do.

A source in Jordan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who prefers to remain anonymous told me that Jordan knew well that the chances for a breakthrough were slim. The timing of the meeting had more to do with a previously planned visit by the king to the United States. He added that to avert any expected American pressure on the issue of reform, the king wanted to see President Barack Obama with something in his hand: his attempt at pre-negotiations.

This explanation is in part true. Yet, Jordan's quest for peace is genuine. After the demise of the Egyptian role in the process and in view of the spread of the "Arab spring", Jordan decided to step in and be proactive to avert bleak future scenarios. Equally important, the timing of the Amman talks was a reflection of other goings-on in the region. The Arab spring revolutions hardly refer to Palestine, thus sending the message that the Palestinian question--once the main issue in Arab politics--has to be placed on the back burner for a while. Jordanian officials cannot be happy with this development, as the peace process is a means of keeping Jordan relevant.

Jordan's success in convening the parties to the conflict should not be inflated. The Palestine Liberation Organization understands that Israel is not yet ready for a genuine peace process and that Hamas has been emboldened by the victory of Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia. For PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a peace process can help keep him relevant. On the other hand, Israel benefits from a peace process because it minimizes pressure on the government and discourages the PLO from seeking unilateral steps in the international arena.

And yet, neither the PLO nor the Israeli government is optimistic that the Amman talks will lead even to an agreed framework for discussing the final status issues. Put differently, the gap between the PLO and Israel is too wide for a country as small as Jordan to bridge.

Unsurprisingly, both Israel and the PLO resorted to the usual blame game. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian politician, said, "these meetings revealed Israel's insistence to continue settlement activities and its refusal of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders." After the fifth round of talks held in Amman, the PLO said that Israel had moved not one step closer to peace negotiations. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of stalling the talks by refusing to discuss Israeli security concerns and by insisting on a vision for "unrealistic" borders.

King Abdullah is not happy with the progress of the Amman talks. Implicit in his most recent statements is his frustration at Israel's tactics at the talks. He stopped short of threatening to take measures that could hurt Israel if the latter continues to stall the peace talks. In any case, this is easier said than done: for Israel to offer the desired concessions, a different constellation of political power has to emerge there.

In brief, it seems that Jordan did not think thoroughly of what would happen if its diplomatic initiative failed. Will Jordan impose sanctions on Israel, as recently leaked? How will this affect its ability to mediate again if conditions change? Did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do its homework properly in the run-up to the exploratory meetings?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this entire exercise was a futile one. For peace to materialize, a certain set of conditions must emerge; so far they have not. History teaches us that only the United States can intervene successfully--and even that, not always. Therefore, we should not raise expectations for what a small state can do.-Published 9/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan A. Barari is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Jordan and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, a Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2009).

Why has Jordan succeeded where others failed?
 Oraib Al-Rantawi

In Jordan's view, the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state, resulting from a serious peace process and intense meaningful negotiations, is a strategic Jordanian interest as well as the fulfillment of Palestinians' legitimate national rights. It might even be said that Jordan--after the Palestinian Authority--is the party most eager for the survival of the peace process and the "two-state solution".

The source of Jordan's interest lies in its decision-makers' deep conviction that stymied horizons for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders will keep the door perpetually open before solutions to the Palestinian cause that are undesirable and come at Jordan's expense. This is visible through agitation by wide swathes of Jordanians, including its "East Bankers", who are raising fears of "resettlement" and an "alternative homeland" for Palestinians, while advocating for the "national identity of Jordan". These angry voices include those loyal to the regime and those within the system itself.

As such, Jordan was among those most alarmed by the 15-month freeze in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis (from September 2010 to the beginning of February 2012). It was dismayed by the lack of international attention to the process, and lack of attention from the actors, including the United States and the European Union, who have been distracted by domestic and regional issues (various elections, economic and financial crises, the crises of Iran and Syria, and the intifadas sweeping the Arab world).

Those who monitor the official political discourse of Jordan observe that it has no reliable alternatives in case of a failure in the "negotiations option" and the two-state solution. As such, the Jordanian leadership is bound to its support of this process, as the only way out of the now seemingly-intractable negotiations and peace process.

Jordan's leadership is under increasing pressure from the Jordanian public to answer difficult and sensitive questions related to the "equation of reform and change" in Jordan. Who is Jordanian? Who is Palestinian? How do we deal with those with Palestinian roots, whether they are descendants of the 1948 refugees, the 1967 displaced, or the children of those from Gaza? How can we achieve the "disengagement" of the two banks of the Jordan River? These are only some of the questions and challenges related to "identity" and "integration" and "citizenship" in Jordanian society. It is no wonder that Jordan's leadership is hastening to achieve a final settlement to the Palestinian question.

For all these reasons, Jordan commenced its initiative for a resumption of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis in Amman, paving the way through numerous contacts and consultations that culminated in an unprecedented visit by the King of Jordan to Ramallah on November 21, 2011. At this time, he used all his weight to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to send a representative to the Amman talks, under the rubric of "exploratory talks". The king succeeded where others had failed, taking advantage of the Palestinian leadership's keenness to maintain the best relations possible with Jordan (the West Bank's lung and lifeline) and its desire not to appear to be the spoiler in a last-ditch effort to save the peace process.

But even as Jordan launched the initiative, it was not completely confident of its chances for success. It thoroughly understands the size of the rift in positions that separates the Palestinian and Israeli sides from each other. This explains the fact that Jordan's Foreign Ministry assumed responsibility for managing the negotiations, so as not to attribute a potential failure to the royal palace, which has an ongoing important historic role to fill in the negotiations, the peace process and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In fact, decision-makers in Jordan wanted their initiative to strike several birds with one stone. Whatever the outcome, Jordan was to come out as the first- or (after the Palestinian Authority) second-place winner in this breakthrough on the road to a "two-state solution". Indeed, this is what happened: Jordan was hailed with appreciation and praise for its role as sponsor and "facilitator".

Another objective, inherent or implied, was behind the launch of the initiative at this particular time. This was to reconstitute the image of Jordan on the international scene as a "pioneer" in peacemaking (having remade its reputation as a "pioneer" in the process of reform and change), even as the Palestinian issue becomes more pressing and urgent with the outbreak of the uprisings and revolutions of the "Arab spring".

It is likely, according to various estimates, that Jordanian diplomacy will continue in its efforts in the near future, with the encouragement of New York and Washington and European capitals, which are keen not to leave a vacuum and avoid the parties' turning to unilateral measures. This is true especially due to the Palestinian leadership's stated intention to pursue "strategic alternatives" in light of the continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, and the Israeli partnership of Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak, which has turned its back on the peace process and the benefits of a two-state solution.

Still, Jordan's role depends greatly on its ability to break Israeli intransigence and "extract" positions and measures capable of persuading Abbas to stay at the negotiating table. This capacity is very limited. Abbas, who participated in the Amman negotiations as a "courtesy" to the king of Jordan, knows that there are limits and ceilings to this courtesy and to the complex political calculations of convincing the Palestinians to continue the negotiations option, after which time he will find himself under intense pressure to stop moving on this path. Instead, Abbas will be pushed to speed up the pace of national reconciliation, the restoration of popular resistance, the rebuilding and activation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the option of pursuing Israel in all international forums, whether they be legal, political, media or diplomatic.-Published 9/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Oraib Al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, Amman.

Jordan needs continued talks
 Mohammad K. Shiyyab

The situation in the Middle East is unpredictable. At best, one can identify many processes as they unfold: the "Arab spring", the proliferation of political Islam, increasing Iranian influence in Iraq coupled with the recent US troop withdrawal there, the uncertain and unacceptable situation in Syria, troubled Turkish-Israeli relations and, more importantly, the sharp deterioration in the crisis around Iran. The lack of progress in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking merely complicates these situations further.

In this context, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that "a lasting peace is an urgent priority as never before, and therefore the conflicting parties must take courageous decisions to make progress on this path."

Accordingly, most states appreciated and welcomed the Jordanian initiative aimed at reviving the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which is at the core of the Arab-Israel conflict. The commitment shown by Jordan has once again demonstrated its traditional and historic role as a fully engaged political player committed to the search for peace and regional stability. However, that is not the only reason behind Jordan's move. There are other motives of relevance to the kingdom's national security and its vital interests in a very turbulent Middle East.

Jordan has been encouraged and supported by both the Quartet and the United States. President Barack Obama met with Jordan's King Abdullah at the White House on January 17, and both leaders pledged to consult closely to try to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama stated that the US and Jordan would encourage the two sides to come back to the table and negotiate in what he described as "a serious fashion". By hosting the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Jordan is sending a message to the world that it is strategically interested in the final status issues and that the Palestinian conflict remains the core of Middle East issues.

King Abdullah is attempting to keep playing a regional role as the Arab spring changes the face of the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians are in no real position to refuse him. With former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak--who played an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--now out of the equation, the continued commitment of Egypt to peace with Israel is uncertain, and Jordan effectively remains a lone island of stability for Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Jordan has a particular interest in resuming the peace talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. They may be an important factor in stabilizing the situation in Jordan itself, where recent months have witnessed some excesses in the spirit of the Arab spring, especially considering the fact that Palestinians, who constitute more than 40 percent of all Jordanians, hold key positions in the Jordanian political and economic community.

Inside Jordan, the positions adopted by the opposition--both that of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as many Jordanians who were traditionally loyal to the king and are now calling for reforms--mean that a complete collapse of the peace process could undermine Jordan's internal stability. Palestinian frustration in the West Bank could snowball into violence, and Jordan is seriously concerned lest this violence cross east of the Jordan River.

It is thus very much in Jordan's interest to strengthen the moderate forces among Palestinians. Ideally, the way to do this is via a successful peace process with Israel. By hosting the talks, Jordan is seeking, according to Jawad Hamad, director of the Amman-based Middle East Studies Centre, "to give a hand to the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas as they face the expanding role of Hamas as a result of the rise of political Islam in several Arab countries, including Egypt and most recently in Kuwait."

Moreover, Jordan is directly concerned with Israeli-Palestinian final status issues, including Jerusalem, water, refugees, and borders and security. Securing close to 500 kilometers of border between Jordan and Israel is one of the biggest burdens for Jordan's military, and consequently for the economy. Yet Israel seems to appreciate this only in words, not deeds. At the same time, Jordan believes that threats to Jerusalem holy sites, or efforts to change the city's character by driving out Arab Muslim and Christian Jerusalemites, could stop peace for decades to come, particularly with the spread of political Islam in the broader Middle East region.

Still, Jordan has strong hopes that both Israelis and Palestinians will be able to seize this precious opportunity courageously and with the appropriate constructive attitude. Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho and his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat have met five times in Jordan-sponsored talks in accordance with a Quartet plan for the sides to agree on a framework for high-level talks. It was reported that after a recent meeting between PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan in Aqaba, the PLO had decided to continue talks with Israel until March.

At this stage, no one is optimistic that the talks will produce any sort of breakthrough. But as King Abdullah put it, the talks "will place more weight on the balance in favor of moderation everywhere. If we stop trying, we leave our fates too much to chance, and leave the field to the extremists".-Published 9/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

General (rtd) Mohammad K. Shiyyab is managing director of Middle East Security Consultants in Amman.

Jordan re-enters the fray
 Naseem Tarawnah

While King Abdullah has managed to maneuver through the turbulent regional weather of the past decade, hardly a year passes without Jordanians such as myself forced to wonder: what would his father King Hussein have done?

The late monarch's legacy is as defined by his pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israel conflict as it is by the creation of modern day Jordan--to the extent that he was perhaps known more for the former than the latter. During his reign, Jordan was never relegated to the back benches of peace talks, but was rather an active cog in the machinery of diplomacy, emboldened by the realization that whatever happens west of the River Jordan is likely to have just as big an impact on its east bank. Although this knowledge has never faded in the halls of the palace, the kingdom's role in the peace process has, for the better part of a decade, been largely reshaped. This has been somewhat due to a shift in priorities that has caused the state to focus on more domestic issues, as well as the fact that the peace process has (for the better part of a decade) been largely absent, replaced by regional instability.

In recent years, Jordan's focus on the peace process has struggled to regain ground--and lost time. From King Abdullah's unexpected speech to the US Congress in 2007, in which he referred to "60 years of Palestinian dispossession and 40 years of occupation" as having "left a bitter legacy of disappointment and despair", to his book entitled "Our Last Best Chance", which focuses almost entirely on the need for all parties to return to the negotiating table, this emphasis has become palpable. Now, in the midst of the "Arab spring", it has manifested the Amman talks.

The outcome was predictable and utterly unsurprising. It seemed that only a fraction of a moment had passed before Palestinian and Israeli delegations were accusing each other and assigning blame to a process that has not only broken down, but rather, simply, become broken.

"In light of the results of the Amman meetings, the PLO Executive Committee considers the Israeli government and it alone to be entirely responsible for their failure," said Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he would get in his car "at any time and go to Ramallah" if he had to, just to sit down with the Palestinian leadership and negotiate. "But Abu Mazen isn't ready," Netanyahu continued. Even the United Nation's Ban Ki-moon could do little to resuscitate the talks during his recent visit to the region, where his call for an Israeli freeze on all settlement-building activities did not go over well. In the end, the Jerusalem Post perhaps best summed up the entire endeavor, calling the talks "another exercise in futile diplomacy".

While the talks are indeed an example of diplomatic disintegration, they also exemplify the fact that diplomacy is infinite in nature. And if there's one thing the Jordanian leadership has historically adhered to, it is the belief that diplomacy is never a futile exercise. If anything, the belief that the peace process must continue--dragged kicking and screaming if need be--has only grown stronger during the past year.

For while the Arab spring has caused every Arab nation to shift its focus towards domestic issues, for Jordan, the status of Palestine is a domestic issue. And the impact of the issue has played out consistently throughout the past year. Jordan's Islamist Action Front, for instance, has returned to the public arena after a three-year absence. The party, deemed to consist mostly of Jordanians from Palestinian origin, has traditionally played a role as the country's foremost political opposition. And while its political rhetoric has, for once, become more domestic in nature, it still maintains a stranglehold on the Palestinian issue. In the past year it has struggled to walk the fine line between Jordanian issues, such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, and self-governance, and the lingering issue of Palestine, which has always kept its base riled up.

The party's return to the political landscape has also triggered the rise of what can only be described as heightened Jordanian nationalism, personifying fears that Islamists, despite their pro-reform rhetoric, may secretly hope for regime change in Jordan, an event that could realize the worst fears of East Bankers: an alternative Palestinian homeland on Jordanian soil. The rhetoric concerning this subject that has emanated from right-wing Israelis in recent months has only fanned the flames domestically.

While the majority of the kingdom's people have favored reform over revolution, many have sought to elevate their message with nationalist rhetoric that has sometimes manifested as anti-Palestinian sentiment. Jordan's retired military veterans, who have long accused the state of offering too many "non-Jordanians" citizenship, have even formed a political party to counter the rise of the Islamists.

Thus, the urgency of the Amman talks is perhaps self-explanatory. Jordan's and Palestine's destinies have always been interwoven despite physical and even political divides. The Arab spring has become a mere catalyst in this equation, forcing it to the forefront of concern for the king and his government. Progress on this front would likely go a long way to quell political discontent at home, especially when it comes to subduing fears of an alternative homeland and removing it as a legitimate political card for various parties to play. The Amman talks may be a step in the right direction for Jordan, but Amman must sustain a leadership role in the process if it hopes to reap the rewards on the domestic front.-Published 9/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Naseem Tarawnah is cofounder of 7iber and blogs at the Black Iris.

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