By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
Ahead of the transition next month to a new US administration, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are intensifying their diplomatic efforts to prepare the ground for a common stand on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A trilateral meeting in Cairo last Saturday that brought together the foreign ministers of the three countries resulted in a joint statement calling for the resumption of peace negotiations.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki urged Israel to return to the negotiating table for peace talks based on the two-state solution. He said that the Palestinian Authority is ready to cooperate with US President-elect Joe Biden to achieve a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, on territory captured by Israel during the 1967 war. He added that coordination with Cairo and Amman is a “center point” that would establish a “starting point” in dealing with the incoming Biden administration in Washington.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the challenges faced by the Palestinians “make coordination a necessity so that we can work together to serve the Palestinian cause, which we all agree is the Arab first and central cause.” He added that “there is an absence in the political horizon, and there is a stalemate in the negotiations process.”
Both King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi have made statements in the past few weeks reiterating support for the Palestinians and for a just and lasting solution to the conflict that delivers a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The recent flurry in diplomatic activity comes in the wake of the US presidential election last month. During a conversation with King Abdullah last month, president-elect Joe Biden expressed his support for the two-state solution — something that President Donald Trump had deviated from. The Trump administration’s peace plan, which was unveiled in January, had few takers in the region or beyond.
Peace talks have been stalled for years under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has abandoned the two-state solution and expressed reservations about the prospect of allowing the Palestinians to have their own state.
In fact, under Trump’s presidency Netanyahu’s right-wing government accelerated the building of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and was close to formally annexing the Jordan Valley last May. Jordan and Egypt rejected the Israeli move, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had already severed ties with Washington, suspended security coordination with Israel.
While Trump’s peace plan did not move forward, a number of Arab countries have formalized normalization-of-relations agreements with Israel under US auspices.
Now the Palestinian leadership feels there is room to build regional and international consensus for a new peace initiative. Abbas met King Abdullah in Amman and El-Sisi in Cairo last month. He renewed his call to convene an international peace conference, and for a bigger role for the Quartet on the Middle East (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia) in sponsoring the talks under the umbrella of the UN.
Abbas hopes that the Biden administration will reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington and the US consulate in East Jerusalem, resume key aid to the Palestinian Authority, support the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and commit to the two-state solution.
Jordan and Egypt are backing the Palestinian position and hope to use their ties with Washington to encourage the new administration to adopt such steps.
The announcement last week of the appointment of a new UN envoy to the Middle East will add to the fresh activity in the months ahead. Veteran Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland will replace Nikolay Mladenov, who held the position for six years and will step down next month.
Wennesland is an experienced diplomat who served as an assistant to Norwegian official Terje Rød-Larsen, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and has been involved in efforts to resolve the conflict since then.
Jordan, Egypt, France and Germany had hoped to kick-start informal talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis in Cairo this month. Safadi held a rare meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi at a Jordan River border crossing this month and is believed to have invited his Israeli counterpart to a meeting in Cairo on Dec. 20 but no representatives from Israel showed up.
Israel is facing a political stalemate that could lead to new Knesset elections next year, as Netanyahu’s partnership with Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz appears to be breaking down. But even as his Likud Party undergoes splits, polls show that Netanyahu may still be able to form a right-wing government.
Netanyahu and his far-right partners continue to represent the main obstacle to a resumption of peace talks. For them, the two-state solution is unacceptable. In contrast, Gantz told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper last week that that Palestinians should have an independent “entity” with territorial continuity, and that there is room in Jerusalem for a Palestinian capital — but reiterated that Israel “won’t go back to the 1967 borders” and “Jerusalem must stay united.”
If peace talks are to resume, however, two key players will have to state their positions. The first is President Biden and his foreign-policy team. The second is Netanyahu, who during the time of President Barack Obama was able to challenge and neutralize the White House.
The diplomatic stage might be set but it is still too early for a new push to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiation table.
* Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010