Israel-Palestine Peace Talks To Resume Next Week With Little Signs Of Breakthrough

JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors return to the negotiating table on Monday for the second round of rare face-to-face talks that promoters say are useful simply because they're taking place.

"We've called on both sides not to set preconditions, not to negotiate in public," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Thursday. "We are encouraged that they are both coming to the table, that they're talking directly. We think that's the best path forward."

Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians, and top Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho, met Tuesday in Amman, Jordan, in the first direct consultations for the two parties in more than a year.

Even before the meeting took place, officials from both sides seemed to rule out the possibility of a significant breakthrough, with the Palestinians insisting they would not formally negotiate until Israel agreed to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and Israelis responding that they would not do so.

After the meeting, the foreign minister of Jordan, which has sponsored the meetings, confirmed that no major breakthroughs had occurred, but applauded the two sides for agreeing to continue the discussions.

"The important thing is the two sides have met face to face," said the minister, Nasser Judeh. "We held today a serious discussion that aims at launching peace talks at the earliest possible opportunity over final status issues."

Observers of the Middle East pointed to the lack of a formal statement of progress as confirmation that the two sides were indeed as far apart on the details of renewed negotiations as they seemed.

"After that meeting the statements were pretty clear that there was no breakthrough, which means if nothing else that there was nothing that was pre-cooked to be announced," said Marwan Muasher, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On the other hand, in the world of high-level diplomacy where so much is typically pre-arranged and choreographed, some analysts say the fact that no one knows where the conversation will lead lends an element of authentic intrigue to the proceedings.

Defenders of the talks, including officials from the so-called Quartet -- the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the U.S. -- point to the 2007 peace talks at Annapolis, where even though little was expected at the outset, both parties issued a joint statement declaring that a two-state solution was the preferred outcome for the talks.

On Thursday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that at this week's meeting the two envoys exchanged documents containing each sides' proposals for land swaps and military positions, something that had previously proven impossible in the high-stakes game of Middle East diplomacy.

According to the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the Israeli document included several familiar points about maintaining defensive posts within the West Bank and along the border with Jordan, as well as an outright refusal of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land within Israel. But the document did reportedly include an offer to withdraw Israeli settlements from certain Arab portions of East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians, for their part, delivered a proposal that would see land swaps of 1.9 percent of the land in the West Bank, and a fully demilitarized Palestinian state.

Western diplomats described the proposals to Haaretz as "recycled."

The paper also described an aggressive lobbying effort by the Jordanian king to bring the two sides to the table.

One clear development, however, seems to be the emergence of Jordan as a possible new power broker in the turbulent Middle East, particularly now that Egypt has moved away from that responsibility, since the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

"The big motivation is that Jordan is worried that if there is no two-state solution, the solution will come at its expense," said Muasher, who has served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in Jordan. "So, that drives Jordan's efforts in general. But do they have something in particular that they think would push the peace process forward? I don't know. I doubt it."

Indeed, for the outcome of the talks themselves, old hands in the peace process say that any drama the talks entail is slight.

"The resumed peace talks are not going to lead anywhere," wrote former peace negotiators Daniel Levy and Leila Hilal on Thursday. "That is probably the safest bet that can be placed for 2012."