- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

JERUSALEM — After this week’s attempt to restart Mideast peace talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now is caught between undesirable choices.

Despite Mr. Abbas’ deep misgivings, a Jordanian offer to salvage the peace process may be his best hope.

Mr. 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 rival Palestinian faction Hamas.

Neither move paid off, and both are now in limbo.

Any of Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, already has 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, Mr. Abbas is unlikely to take any step that boosts Hamas’ hand.

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

Reconciliation is essential for Mr. Abbas’ dream of establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas have agreed tentatively 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 attempts could lead to international isolation for the Palestinians and almost certainly torpedo any hope for restarting peace negotiations.

Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, as do the U.S. and the European Union, 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 Mr. Abbas’ West Bank government afloat.

Reviving the U.N. bid would be equally risky.

Mr. 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 have set a Jan. 26 deadline for resuming talks.

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