Peace Talks Collapsed Because of Jordan

New details from Newsweek over the weekend get to the heart of why direct peace talks collapsed after three meetings.

Remember the direct talks that occurred in September between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? The question seems silly, but given the short duration (a total of sixteen hours), it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if people have forgotten that both sides actually spoke face to face. After just three meetings, the discussions broke off amid Israel’s refusal to extend the settlement moratorium. Abbas has stayed on the sidelines ever since, a position that he will continue to use as long as the Israeli government refuses to cease settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The reason I bring this up is twofold. First, we haven’t had direct talks since that early September date and the United States has been desperately trying coax both sides into talking one on one for the past few months. (Is President Obama getting discouraged?) But more importantly, people in the media (and bloggers like myself) have been citing the wrong reasons as to why the talks collapsed.

Before this short Newsweek brief came out over the weekend, people similar to myself assumed that the September discussions were terminated because Netanyahu and Abbas were stubborn and unwavering in their demands. In other words, that Israelis wanted one thing, the Palestinians another, and a moderate compromise remained elusive.

This, apparently, was the wrong assumption to hold. According to Newsweek‘s Dan Ephron, the talks were doomed from the start, due to Netanyahu’s unwillingness to discuss anything before Israel’s “security concept” was accepted by Abbas’ negotiators. This may be a reasonable demand, given Israel’s contentious past with its Arab neighbors and Palestinian militants. But when one gets to the heart of what Israel’s “security concept” means, Netanyahu’s stubbornness simply becomes unjustifiable.

In details provided by Newsweek, Netanyahu wanted Israeli troops on Palestine’s side of the West Bank barrier, in addition to a large contingent of Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley.

This last demand is particularly difficult to understand. The state of Jordan is, based on Middle Eastern standards, one of the most moderate regimes in the region. Jordanian and Israeli intelligence have worked together repeatedly over the past decade on everything from immigration control to the tracking of militants. Jordan even holds a formal peace treaty with Israel, one of only two Arab states that do so (Egypt being the other). So why, despite all of these positives, was Netanyahu so insistent on retaining Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley?

Negotiators who were involved in the September talks confirm that the demand was due to Israel’s concern about Jordan turning more radical in the future. Last time I checked, Jordan was relatively stable, and the one political party that Israel has always been leery of, the Muslim Brotherhood, is largely a pragmatic political actor in Jordanian politics.

Netanyahu is either using Jordan as an excuse to surround a potential state of Palestine with Israeli troops, or King Abdullah’s Hashemite Kingdom is a lot more fragile than we all have been led to believe. Taking Netanyahu’s politics into account — and his desire to keep his right-wing coalition afloat — I’m guessing that the first statement weights more heavily in his mind than the second.