The good news about the Jordanian-hosted Palestinian-Israeli-Quartet meeting in Amman to explore possibilities for resuming Palestinian-Israeli direct negotiations is that former US Mideast specialist Dennis Ross is not there to guarantee failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation.
The bad news is that the meeting is likely to fail because the Ross approach to guaranteeing diplomatic failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation still prevails.
The Ross approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy has essentially rested on the premise that everybody must make Israel comfortable and design negotiations on the basis of Israeli security concerns in order for any progress to be made. This is precisely why no measurable progress has ever been made when Ross spearheaded or influenced American diplomacy on this issue.
The noble mission of achieving justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians, and other concerned Arabs, remains hostage to the American political imperative of pleasing Israel first. (A derivative of this is the Ross approach to diplomacy with Iran, which, equally Israeli-centric, has also been a consistent failure.)
Ross — now back at his former base at the pro-Israel group the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — was always an operational symptom and symbol of this reality, rather than its driving force.
The deep official American tilt in favour of Israel is profoundly structural and political, and not the work of a few individuals. It has been building up for half a century, and now relies primarily on near stranglehold control of American members of Congress by pro-Israeli fanatics.
This is most evident in the atmosphere surrounding the American presidential election season that kicked off formally Tuesday with the Iowa Republican caucuses where candidates climb over each other to show total exuberance for whatever Israel wants — to the point where some more level-headed American Jews have complained about this for the possible backlash it might bring against American Jews and Israel.
The implications of this for conditions in the Middle East are profound, and mostly negative. The continued attempts to restart negotiations, define parameters, develop confidence-building measures, establish deadlines and targets, and pursue a host of other dead ends have all failed over the past 20 years because they lacked the intellectual honesty and diplomatic evenhandedness that is required for success in such situations.
This is aggravated by the trend, over the past decade in Israel, which has seen a combination of rightwing messianic and super-nationalist militaristic groups dominate the current coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. Their position that peace talks can continue while Zionism pursues its steady colonisation of Palestinian lands is preposterous in its own right, and a diplomatic deadweight that is apparently supported, or merely accepted, by the United States.
The Quartet of the United States, Russia the UN and the European Union, which is supposed to shepherd the negotiations to success, adds another layer of incompetence, crowned by Ross-like bias and a penchant for rhetoric, statements and meetings over action.
So the gathering in Amman this week is hampered by so many layers of constraint that it has no chance of going anywhere, mainly because the actors continue to approach Arab-Israeli peace making through the made-in-Washington Ross school of Israel-first strategy.
An interesting twist to this week’s meeting is the apparently low-key American role in it. This is consistent with the general retreat of the United States from Middle Eastern engagements, where its heavy-handedness has usually left behind a legacy of either massive destruction or political failure — or both. A low-key role by Washington could be a positive development if it removes the structural pro-Israel bias from the diplomatic architecture of the day, and allows negotiators to move ahead based on a more clear commitment to the equal rights of both sides and the underlying glue of international law.
Conditions on the Arab side are not much more impressive than the Israeli, American and Quartet perspectives, given the lack of unity among Palestinians and the general diplomatic lassitude of the Arab world as a whole. So breakthroughs for a negotiated peace are not on the horizon. One thing is sure, however. The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, with the current political attitudes of the United States, EU and the leading Arab powers, can only portend more conflict ahead.
It is right that concerned parties should try to restart diplomatic negotiations, as they have done in Amman this week, but this is an exercise in futility if it occurs on the foundation of the cumulative failures of the recent past. Sadly, this seems to be the case.
The new year is full of hope for many Arabs who taste freedom and democracy, but it has not yet ushered in a new, more honest and fair, approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy.