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Preparing for a political breakthrough ahead of Biden’s inauguration

Dec 23,2020 - Last updated at Dec 23,2020

Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are intensifying diplomatic efforts to prepare the ground for a common stand on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ahead of next month’s transition to a new US administration. A trilateral meeting in Cairo last Saturday brought together the foreign ministers of the three countries and resulted in issuing a joint statement that called for the resumption of peace negotiations.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Malki urged Israel to return to peace talks based on the two-state solution. He said that the Palestinian Authority is ready to cooperate with US President-elect Joe Biden, on the basis of achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and on territory Israel captured in the 1967 war. Al Maliki added that coordination with Cairo and Amman is a “centre point” that would establish a “starting point” in dealing with the incoming Biden administration.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi told journalists the challenges facing the Palestinian cause “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 pointed that “there is an absence in the political horizon, and there is a stalemate in the negotiations process”.

Both His Majesty King Abdullah and President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi have made statements in the past few weeks reiterating support for the Palestinians and for a just and lasting solution to the conflict that would deliver a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The recent flurry in diplomatic activity comes in the wake of the outcome of the US presidential elections last month. In a call between King Abdullah and Biden last month, the president-elect expressed support for the two-state solution; something that President Donald Trump had deviated from. Trump’s peace plan, unveiled last January, had few takers in the region and beyond.

Peace talks had stalled for years under Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin 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 severed ties with Washington, suspended security coordination with Israel. While Trump’s plan did not move forward, a number of Arab countries formalised normalisation 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 with King Abdullah in Amman and President Sissi in Cairo last month. He renewed his call for the convening of an international peace conference and for a bigger role for the International Quartet in sponsoring the talks under the umbrella of the United Nations.

Abbas hopes that the new administration will reopen the PLO’s office in Washington and the US consulate in East Jerusalem, resume key aid to the PA in addition to supporting UNRWA and committing to the two-state solution. Jordan and Egypt are backing the Palestinian position and hope to employ their ties with Washington to encourage the Biden administration to adopt such steps.

Adding to the fresh activity will be the appointment of a new UN envoy to the Middle East last week. Veteran Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland will replace Nikolay Mladenov, who held the position over the past six years. Wennesland is an experienced diplomat who served as the assistant of Norwegian official Terje Rød-Larsen, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, and has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1993.

Jordan, Egypt, France and Germany had hoped to kick-start Palestinian-Israeli informal talks in Cairo this month. Safadi held a rare meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi at a Jordan River border crossing earlier this month and is believed to have invited his Israeli counterpart to a Cairo meeting on 20 December. But Israel did not show up.

Israel is facing a political stalemate that may lead to new Knesset elections next year as Netanyahu’s partnership with Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz appears to be breaking up. Even as his Likud Party undergoes splits, polls show that Netanyahu may still be able to form a right-wing government. He and his far right partners continue to be 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 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”.

But for peace talks to resume, two main players will have to state their positions; president Biden and his foreign policy team and Netanyahu, who under president Barack Obama was able to challenge and neutralise the White House. The diplomatic stage may be ready but it is too early for a new push to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiation’s table.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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