The Jordanian Peace Initiative: A Case of Déjà Vu?

Twenty-five years ago today, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan's King Hussein concluded a series of secret meetings in London by drafting a document aimed at jumpstarting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process. The London Agreement called for the convening of an international peace conference that would be followed by bilateral negotiations. We will never know if these negotiations would have led to a peace settlement because the agreement reached by the two veteran statesmen was ultimately scrapped by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. What we do know is that Israel paid dearly for Shamir's obstinacy. The lessons from this debacle are relevant today as the Jordanians have taken the initiative, once again, in reviving the peace process.

The London Agreement would have served the interests of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Israel would have negotiated a peace deal with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, rather than with the more militant PLO. The Jordanians would have won back territories they lost to Israel in the 1967 war. And the Palestinians could have rid themselves of the burdens associated with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The document's basic principles -- that all parties must accept UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and renounce violence and terrorism -- are today widely accepted as the basis for any peace agreement.

Fearing that an international conference would push Israel into a corner, however, Shamir torpedoed the Peres-Hussein agreement. Shamir's decision turned out to be short-sighted. That December, the first Intifada erupted in the occupied territories, leading to widespread violence in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Seven months later, on July 31, 1988, King Hussein announced that he was severing all administrative and legal ties to the West Bank, signaling an end to Jordan's formal role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Within four years, Shamir found himself at the very international conference he had feared, but under terms less favorable for Israel. Shamir's successor, Yitzhak Rabin, was left to conduct negotiations with the mercurial PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, in place of King Hussein.

Although Israel today enjoys peace with Jordan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester and, once again, Jordan is attempting to breathe life into the peace process. In January, the Jordanians hosted preliminary talks in Amman and have since been trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Yet, just as his father's efforts were rejected by Shamir a generation ago, King Abdullah's initiative has thus far received a tepid response -- this time, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his counterpart, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Five rounds of exploratory talks have produced little progress. The Palestinians are refusing to return to the talks until Israel freezes settlement activity, releases Fatah-affiliated prisoners, and agrees to a return to the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations. Beyond rejecting these pre-conditions, the Netanyahu government is threatening to exit negotiations entirely if Abbas' Fatah party and his rival Hamas resume their reconciliation talks. Meanwhile, Israel's focus on Iran has effectively relegated peacemaking to the backburner.

The Jordanians have been promoting these talks for good reason. With a sizable Palestinian population, King Abdullah is concerned about Jordan's stability given the revolutions sweeping the region. Renewed violence in the West Bank in the form of a third Intifada could easily spill over the Jordan River and create existential problems for Amman. A new Intifada would also be disastrous for Israelis and Palestinians, fewer and fewer of whom believe that a two-state solution is viable.

The Israelis and Palestinians are squandering yet another opportunity in spite of favorable conditions. Netanyahu currently faces the most moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership in history, one that is committed to a path of nonviolence and to a two-state solution. For his part, Abbas faces an Israeli interlocutor who heads the most stable Israeli government in decades, one which would likely be able to sell a deal to the Israeli public if a deal can be reached.

As decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have shown, talks are no guarantee for success. The absence of talks, however, is likely to prove worse. Just as the collapse of the London Agreement resulted in the first Intifada and the removal of Jordan's moderate King Hussein from the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the failure of Jordan's current initiative may give way to renewed bloodshed and the replacement of Israel's moderate Palestinian peace partner with a more extremist leadership dominated by Hamas. With both sides growing more skeptical by the day about whether a two-state solution is possible, a third Intifada may be only the harbinger for what could yet come to pass.

This article was originally published in the Hebrew version of Haaretz.