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Jordan talks may help Palestinian leader

JERUSALEM -- After this week's attempt to restart Mideast peace talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now caught between undesirable choices. Despite Abbas' deep misgivings, a Jordanian offer to salvage the peace process may be his best hope.

Abbas has been searching for alternatives since the last round of peace talks broke down in September 2010. Refusing to negotiate while Israel expanded its Jewish settlements, he appealed to the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestine and moved to reconcile with the rival Palestinian faction Hamas. Neither move paid off, and both are now in limbo.

Any of Abbas' options carries great risk -- whether it's opening outright negotiations with Israel, taking unilateral action at the U.N. or cozying up to the Islamic militant Hamas. The quiet talks hosted by Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday -- the first face-to-face talks between them in 15 months -- could provide a way for him to avoid having to choose a particular path.

Abbas would pay a heavy price among Palestinians if he returns to formal peace negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze, a step that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staunchly refuses.

The 76-year-old Abbas, already seen as a weak leader, would face widespread public criticism for backing down and harsh condemnations from Hamas.

Hamas, which has long criticized any peace efforts with Israel, has already threatened to walk away from reconciliation efforts if negotiations resume. With Islamic groups across the Middle East gaining in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Abbas is unlikely to take any step that boosts Hamas' hand.

The Palestinian factions have been at odds since Hamas ousted Abbas' forces and seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Reconciliation is essential for Abbas' dream of establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas have tentatively agreed on holding new elections in the Palestinian areas this spring, with the idea of forming a new government afterward.

But pushing forward with these reconciliation attempt could lead to international isolation for the Palestinians and almost certainly torpedo any hope for restarting peace negotiations.

Israel, along with the U.S. and the European Union, consider Hamas a terrorist group, and Israel would break off talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. In addition, the West would likely cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid needed to keep Abbas' West Bank government afloat.

Reviving the U.N. bid would be equally risky. Abbas' appeal to the U.N. Security Council for membership last fall immediately ran into trouble. He was unable to muster enough support in the 15-member council, and the United States has threatened to veto the measure if it is revived.

When the Palestinians managed to win admission to the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, Israel and the U.S. responded by withholding badly needed funds due to the Palestinians. The U.S. continues to withhold some $150 million in developmental aid.

The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to expand settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They say construction on captured lands where the Palestinians want to establish their state is a sign of bad faith. Israel says negotiations should resume without any preconditions and insists it has the right to continue settlement building.

The Palestinians have set a Jan. 26 deadline for resuming talks.

Abbas' office issued a statement Wednesday night saying the Palestinians will continue with the meetings in Jordan until the end of the month.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was pleased that the sides are talking again and that the first meeting was constructive.

Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Abbas threatened to pursue "harsh" measures against Israel if a freeze isn't in place.

Bassam Salhi, a member of a committee exploring the Palestinian options, said the choices include new action at the U.N., such as seeking international condemnation of Israeli settlements, reconsidering Palestinian security cooperation with Israel and even dissolving the Palestinian government.

"Abbas will not go for negotiations with Israel unless it freezes the building in the settlements," Salhi said.

Most likely, Abbas will drift among small overtures to Israel, Hamas and the West to keep his options open, said Palestinian political scientist George Gaqaman.

Abbas does not want to hurt his standing among Palestinians but cannot afford a major diplomatic confrontation with Israel, the West or neighboring Jordan.

"The Palestinian leadership is in a difficult position," he said. "The continuation of settlement construction obstructs the possibility of having a Palestinian state, and the Palestinians can't boycott the political efforts. Therefore we see maneuvering, not strategy."

At Tuesday's meeting in Amman, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said there had been no breakthroughs, but announced the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to continue their dialogue in search of an agenda for substantive negotiations. The next meeting could be as soon as next week.

These talks, expected to take place quietly and out of the public eye, could provide Abbas the cover he needs while he looks for a way out of the deadlock.

Abbas, deeply suspicious of Netanyahu, can use the coming months to assess the Israeli leader's positions on key issues. In Amman, for instance, Israel received a Palestinian proposal for future border arrangements and promised to respond with its own proposal in the near future.

While Israel has ruled out a settlement freeze now, officials have said they are ready for "mutual confidence building measures" should negotiations resume.

Perhaps with this in mind, Judeh, the host of Tuesday's meeting, voiced some hope for progress.

"The important thing is that the two sides have met face to face today," he said. "We want to create the appropriate atmosphere to reach solutions."


Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this article. Federman is The Associated Press' news editor for Israel and the Palestinian territories.

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