Jordan King Abdullah's Christmas Eve Initiative

Behind the scenes of how the latest peace talks unfolded, and how Jordan's King isn't simply standing to the side and watching the process stall - he's assuming responsibility and taking an active role.

Last week, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh arrived in Bethlehem for the traditional Christmas Eve mass in the Church of the Nativity. Just before services began, Judeh met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and updated him on the recent push by Jordan and the Quartet on the Middle East – which includes the United States, Russia, the EU, and the UN – to organize a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in Amman.

A Western diplomat with knowledge of the inner workings of the Jordanian initiative said that it was at that Bethlehem meeting that Judeh received Abbas final approval to send an envoy to the planned Amman session. According to the diplomat, the Jordanian FM, upon his return to Jordan, presented the initiative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus envoy Yitzhak Molho, inviting him to the meeting.

Abdullah and Abbas - Emil Salman - January 2012
Emil Salman

It took another two weeks of contacts to coordinate with Quartet Mideast envoy Tony Blair, U.S. envoy to the region David Hale, UN representative Robert Serry, and others before the meeting finally took place this past Tuesday.

The Palestinian account of events, however, is a little different. According to them, the initiative was underway three weeks prior to Judehs Christmas visit, when Jordanian King Abdullah II arrived at the presidential compound in Ramallah for his historic visit.

It was there that Abdullah offered Jordan as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. We Just want to organize a exploratory meeting to feel things out, give us a chance, Palestinian sources cited the Jordanian king as telling Abbas at the meeting.

The king persisted in his attempts to sway the Palestinian president, explaining that, under the current circumstances, Jordan was in a unique position to influence Netanyahus policies.

It seems the Jordanians were not entirely wrong. They understood that both Netanyahu and Abbas were in no real position to refuse the king, with both sides losing their main prop on Mideast peace in the region, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to the Arab Spring.

Jordan effectively remained a lone island of stability as far as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were concerned.

Exchanging recycled negotiation documents

While the meeting between Molho and top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat failed to reach any kind of breakthrough, it still succeeded in exceeding the extremely low expectations set by everyone involved. Before the PMs envoy left for Amman he was cited as saying in a closed conversation that he was going away with zero expectations.

Molho arrived at the Jordan meeting with two escorts. The first was Israels ambassador to the U.K. Daniel Taub, Molhos deputy before he received his appointment to London two months ago. The other was the PMs spokesperson Yoaz Hendel, who came along to respond to any unexpected media crises that may arises during or after the meeting.

During the meeting, the PMs envoy agreed for the first time to take possession of Palestinian documents concerning the borders and security arrangements of the future Palestinian state. The bottom line of these proposals was that the Palestinians agreed to a land swap consisting of 1.9 percent of the West Bank and to a demilitarized state.

Molho refused to take the documents in previous meetings throughout 2010, before peace talks were severed completely, saying that the act could bring about the dissolution of Netanyahus coalition.

On his end, the PMs envoy passed on a 21-point document to Erekat, which included the topics Israel would be interested in discussing in future talks.

According to Western diplomats updated on the details of the Amman meeting, both the Palestinian and the Israeli documents were recycled and didnt present any innovation. Molho and Erekat specified this prior to the meeting in separate talks with Quartet representatives and even during their meeting.

Molho claimed that the Palestinian document includes positions that are 10-years old, and nothing about them is new. Erekat, on his part, said the Israeli proposal wasnt presenting new stances either, going as far as pulling a copy out of his bag to show it to the Quartet officials who received it in the past. You gave me this document in August 2010, Erekat told Molho.

Report says Israel agrees to withdraw from East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods

The London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi presented some of the points it claims appeared on the Israeli document. The most intriguing one, the report claimed, was both an outright Israeli refusal to withdraw out of all of East Jerusalem and go all the way back to the 1967 lines, as well as Israels willingness to withdraw from Arab neighborhoods in the citys east.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat himself spoke of the possibility of relinquishing the Arab neighborhoods in recent weeks, receiving a cold shower of criticism from right-wing officials. 

The al-Quds al-Arabi report included other points it claims to originate from the Israeli proposal. Those include: Israels refusal to a return of Palestinian refugees as specified in UN resolution 194; a refusal to evacuate all of the settlements in the West Bank; an insistence on maintaining an military presence along Israels border with Jordan; forbidding the future Palestinian state from signing alliances with states hostile to Israel; leaving IDF forces in strategic West Bank locations; and the gradual implementation of the peace deal along several years.

Sources in the Prime Ministers Office confirmed that a document had indeed been pass on, refusing, however, to disclose it in full. According to those sources, the points released by al-Quds al-Arabi were not the points Israel transmitted, saying that the actual proposal included much more general clauses such as the demand that any peace deal would end the conflict and end all demands on both sides, a willingness to discuss aerial control issues, a willingness to discuss water sources, and more.

The document included general points, not specifics, a senior Israeli official said. Thats the whole concept Molho has about running the talks. First agree on the points and issues to be discussed in order to arrive at a framework deal, and then go over point by point in greater detail, he added.

The danger: Initiative could dampen Israel-Jordan ties

It still isnt clear what will be the fact of the Jordanian initiative. Another meeting will take place in Amman next week, at which point it will become clear if theres going to be any continuity to the push, or will it be crowned a failure, allowing the sides to gear themselves toward a renewed diplomatic confrontation at the UN after the January 26 Quartet deadline for discussing borders and security.

On any account, the initiative represents the first time Jordan has taken an active mediating role since Abdullah took power over a decade ago. The king, who was usually busy complaining and issuing warnings through interview to the global media, has taken upon himself to lead a genuine diplomatic drive.

It still remains to be seen whether the Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians have thought all of the next steps through, and, above all, if they considered the possibility of failure. Odds are that if Abdullahs initiative fails hes more likely to blame Netanyahu than Abbas. Above all, the main fear is that whatever happened to Israels relations with Turkey in 2008, after failed mediation with Syria, will repeat itself with Jordan.