x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Palestinians and Israelis talk in Amman, but hopes dwindle

Negotiators meet for the first time in more than a year, amid gloomy hopes that the peace process can be revived.

AMMAN // Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met in Amman yesterday for the first time in more than a year amid dwindling hopes that the peace process can be revived.

Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian peace negotiator, met Yitzhak Molcho, a senior aide to the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mediated by the Jordanian foreign minister Naser Judeh.

The gathering came ahead of a January 26 deadline set by the Middle East Quartet - the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - to reignite deadlocked negotiations.

In September, the Quartet said the two sides had four months to present their positions on future borders and security arrangements as part of its efforts to renew talks.

Those efforts came after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas angered Israel by asking the UN Security Council to recognise Palestine as an independent state and admit it as a member of the organisation.

Mr Abbas's action was triggered by Palestinian disappointment that years of negotiations have failed to yield any progress on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel has indicated it does not view January 26 as the Quartet's deadline, suggesting the four-month period will begin only when negotiations start.

Mr Abbas yesterday threatened to take "new measures" against Israel if the Jordanian meeting fails to bring a renewal of talks, which could include more moves at the UN in New York.

The Palestinians have demanded Israel freeze all settlement activities in the West Bank and agree a future Palestinian state be based on pre-1967 borders. They want their state to include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr Abbas said yesterday that if Israel accepts the Palestinian demands, "we will go to negotiations".

The latest bid to resume negotiations also comes as new estimates show the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel will surpass the number of Israeli Jews within a decade.

According to a report from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of Israeli Jews and Palestinians will reach 6.3 million each by the end of 2015.

Five years afterwards, the number of Palestinians will rise to 7.2 million while the number of Israeli Jews will be 6.8 million.

Israeli commentators yesterday said the gathering in Amman was unlikely to spur a renewal of talks. "The chances that the meeting will not end in failure are small and the chances that it will bring to a resumption of the peace process are null," wrote Barak Ravid, a commentator for the newspaper Haaretz.

"With this gloomy situation, the statistics from the Palestinian Authority appear even more worrying."

The meeting was hosted by Jordan after months of intensive diplomatic pressure by King Abdullah II to persuade the two sides to return to the negotiating table.

Jordan, one of only two Arab countries to sign a peace agreement with Israel - the other is Egypt - has been keen to reignite talks amid its growing concern the stalemate will threaten its own stability.

The meeting may have signalled an attempt by King Abdullah to become more active in Middle East diplomacy and step into the role of the ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been a frequent mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yesterday, officials in Amman sought to make it clear the meeting did not mean a "relaunching of peace talks", said Mohammad Kayed, the Jordanian foreign ministry's spokesman. He added: "The meeting seeks to break the impasse in the peace process and to … explore ways to resume the negotiations."

Mr Kayed said it was "in Jordan's strategic interest to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and the Palestinian issue had always been a priority.

Palestinians make up about half Jordan's population and Jordanian officials have grown concerned that the absence of a peace process may prompt Israel to dump responsibility for the West Bank, which it borders, in Jordan's lap.

Such worries have been stoked by statements by some right-wing Israelis that Jordan's Palestinian population makes it an ideal place for a Palestinian state.