REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Despite low expectations for a breakthrough in the deadlocked peace process, the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in more than a year resulted in modest progress: an agreement to resume talks about the negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's envoy to the talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met with delegates representing the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators in Jordan and later held a meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
Judeh hosted Tuesday's talks at the initiative of Jordan's King Abdullah, who has a keen interest in the process. He said the meetings were positive and that he found both sides committed to a two-state solution.
"We do not wish to raise the bar of expectations but nor should we underplay the importance of today's meetings," the minister said in a news conference in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Tuesday's meeting will be followed by a series of talks, Judeh said.
Some of the talks are expected to be secret. This will enable both sides to present their positions without having to face internal political criticism, said Oded Granot, a commentator on Israeli TV's Channel 1. "This new format of secret talks in Jordan does not guarantee success, but it preserves the thread of the process, which all three sides need," Granot said, describing Jordan's king as "the big winner" of the day.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders are challenged by internal politics. Netanyahu's conservative, pro-settlement coalition is unlikely to enable a move requiring another settlement freeze. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas faces criticism from all sides, with Hamas assailing the meeting and jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti recently describing the peace process as "dead".
The development won't renew the negotiations just quite yet but will allow the sides to respond to the initiative of the quartet, the Middle East mediators from the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. After the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership in September, the quartet proposed an outline for renewing negotiations and concluding them by the end of 2012.
The first phase of the outline called on the sides to present proposals on security and territory issues by the end of January. A month ago, the Palestinians submitted to the quartet a detailed proposal including maps accepting a 1.9% land swap. Israel has maintained it will submit proposals only in actual negotiations but reportedly received the Palestinian document Tuesday and said it would be studied.
Despite careful optimism about continuing contacts, the main points of contention are yet to be bridged. The hours before the meeting reflected just this, as Abbas warned of "hard measures" if Tuesday's talks did not lead to renewed negotiations, and Israel's housing ministry issued more tenders for planned construction in East Jerusalem.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was "very much encouraged" about the direct talks and urged both sides to "tackle core issues so that a lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East."
There was no immediate comment from Israeli or Palestinian officials.
-- Batsheva Sobelman