Netanyahu, Abbas - AP - Sept 2 2010
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo by AP
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The Prime Minister’s Office, as well as senior officials in the Palestinian Authority have been reporting, rather laconically, on the positive atmosphere and the in-depth and serious discussions taking place in Jordan, despite the hidden bitterness and anger on the side of the Israelis.

When the talks started, both sides committed to Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh that they would avoid leaking information, and make sure that the contents of the talks would remain within his office's hands.

Israel’s anger stems from a series of articles that appeared in both the Israeli and Arab press that which revealed details of the talks between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Furthermore, the Palestinians, and in one case President Mahmoud Abbas, revealed the meeting dates between the two sides.

Until today, no one in Israel will say so publicly, although in the closed-door meetings the blame is being placed on Saeb Erekat. Molho and other Israeli officials claim that Erekat has been leaking the contents of the talks, as well as briefing journalists regarding the discussions in “off-the-record” conversations. On Monday, the laconic criticism turned into a direct attack on Erekat when Netanyahu told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that there was “an agreement not to talk about what occurs during the talks, but Erekat does not stop talking, despite the fact that we have respected the agreement.”

I attempted to contact Erekat a week ago in order to clarify what is occurring during the talks. Unlike previous instances, he refused. “I promised the Jordanian Foreign Minister that I will not talk until the 26th of January,” Erekat told me. What I have to say, he added, will be said during my speech at the Herzliya Conference in the beginning of February.

Incidentally, Israel’s anger was also directed toward the Americans. Approximately two weeks ago, during a daily press briefing, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland revealed one of the dates of the meetings in Jordan. Jerusalem and Amman were furious, and the Americans were forced to apologize and admit that they had made a mistake.

The negative campaign on the backburner

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister’s Office does not provide many details on the contents of the talks in Jordan, it does grant much significance to both the media and PR aspects behind them. For this reason, Netanyahu’s chief media adviser, Dr. Yoaz Hendel, has become a permanent member of Molho’s mission.

Hendel recently assembled the “Palestinian Forum” in which several members of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and the IDF take part. When the forum first converged approximately a month ago, it focused on putting together a negative public campaign aimed at Abbas.

The Prime Minister’s Office’s condemnation of a meeting between Abbas and terrorist Amna Muna in Istanbul was a harbinger of the negative campaign to come. The international media and Western foreign ministries barely paid attention to the event, although Jewish-American organizations responded positively to the campaign and encouraged Netanyahu to not let up.

Even so, the talks in Jordan began several days after the condemnation, and by then the instructions turned 180 degrees. From a negative campaign against the Palestinians, Hendel and the rest of the forum began thinking about how to market the talks on the world stage as part of a peace process that Israel is interested in promoting.

The Prime Minister’s Office had to tell those who wished to renew the negative campaign that the circumstances had changed. With the current timing, Netanyahu’s people say it is necessary to give the talks a chance, not to mention the fact that Israel promised Jordan it would keep a low media profile.

The next meeting between Molho and Erekat will take place on Wednesday, January 25. From the point of view of the Palestinians, if they do not receive an Israeli document with references to the issue of borders, it will also be the last meeting. On January 29, Abbas will meet with the foreign ministers of the Arab League to try and formulate a joint position regarding the future of the talks. On February 3, the PLO leadership will meet with representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to make a final decision.

By the way things look, it is likely that the talks will enter a renewed stalemate. One can assume that if such a thing does happen, the Prime Minister’s Office will quickly pull out the negative campaign from the backburner.