PNA says no meetings were held with Israelis in U.S.

Israeli settlers burn mosque in Ramallah amidst concerns religious warfare breaks out

U.S. administration: It’s high time power should be transferred peacefully in Yemen

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied that a Palestinian delegation to Washington exchanged messages with an Israeli official, who is also in the United States for meetings with the White House, saying that he did not know the Israelis would be there.

"There was no meeting with the Israeli delegate Yitzhak Molcho, no direct or indirect exchange of messages," Erekat told Haaretz following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other State Department officials.

Erekat told Haaretz he learned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's aide Molcho was also holding talks with the White House only after he arrived in Washington.

Earlier it was reported that Israeli and Palestinian delegates are separately holding covert talks with White House officials in an effort to reignite peace talks.

The Unites States initiated the talks following the French proposal which calls for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet this month or by early July with an eye to reviving talks which broke off last year in a dispute on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

"[Palestinian] President Abbas met with French Foreign Minister Juppe who produced an initiative, that we accepted, to resume negotiations. We told Juppe we want to hear the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu say 'I accept the initiative.' There is no big difference between what the French and the Americans are telling us," Erekat said following his meeting in the White House.

"It’s the same negotiations on the basis of 1967 borders with agreed land swaps," Erekat said after talks with Clinton. "The problem is not with Juppe, Sweden, the U.S. or Lesotho, the problem is with the prime minister of Israel. Prime Minster Netanyahu can say yes in Hebrew, in English, he can say it Chinese, but meanwhile he wants to come to Washington to make peace with Congress. He comes to Washington to dictate the results of negotiations while we seek to resume negotiations."

The Palestinians plan to unilaterally seek UN recognition of statehood in September -- a step Israel strongly opposes fearing it could end up isolated internationally. The United States has already said it opposes the plan.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe this week offered to host talks to discuss ideas for a Palestinian state raised last month by U.S. President Barack Obama, aiming to avert a showdown at the United Nations in September.

Both Clinton and Juppe said in a joint press conference in Washington that there is sufficient work that needs to be done before the two sides sit down to talk, and denied that they have reached an agreement.

"Right now there is no agreement that the parties will resume negotiations and any gathering has to be linked to willingness of parties to negotiate. It won't be productive to have a conference about returning to negotiations. We are in a wait-and-see attitude, and we have a serious concern about the role Hamas will play in the negotiations," Clinton said after her meeting with her French counterpart.

"The Palestinians reacted positively and the Israelis didn’t say no. We will only have this conference if there is sufficient work done," Juppe said.

The local Arabic dailies focused on two prime issues: Israeli settlers’ attack against a mosque in the West Bank village of Mughayyir, and US and Germany’s demand on Palestinians not to seek in September United Nations recognition of a state within 1967 borders.

Al-Quds, al-Hayat al-Jadida and al-Ayyam reported extensively on the arson of the mosque giving it prominence with almost half page pictures of the damage caused to the mosque’s contents.

The three dailies also covered the joint press conference between US president Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington, specifically on a call by the two leaders on Palestinians not to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state, expressing strong opposition to such a move, and for their support for the two-state solution.

Al-Ayyam’s prime story featured US reserved welcome of the French peace initiative under the headline: “Israel celebrates aborting the French peace Initiative.” Al-Quds featured the story in its second page.

Al-Hayat al-Jadida featured a meeting between Abbas and ex-prisoner Fawaz Bakhtan, who was recently released after serving 25 years in Israeli prisons.

The Palestinian cabinet meeting was also featured in al-Quds and al-Hayat al-Jadida newspapers. The cabinet said that overdue salaries will be paid once a $26.4 million Algerian grant arrives.

The dailies featured as well events in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

An opinion piece by Azzam Abu Saud in al-Quds supported naming Salam Fayyad as the prime minister in the national unity government. He anticipated a fallout if Fayyad would not be named to run the new government, leading to strikes and protests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. called on Yemen’s leaders to proceed with an immediate transition of power even as the Obama administration works with Saudi Arabia to try to prevent the country from descending into civil war.

“The instability and lack of security afflicting Yemen cannot be addressed until there’s some process that’s going to lead to the economic and political reforms” the people are seeking, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the State Department.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is recuperating in a Saudi military hospital after surgery for injuries sustained in a June 3 rocket attack on his presidential compound, vowed to return within days, raising the prospect of further violence and instability.

U.S. administration officials said Saleh was more badly burned than originally thought, raising doubts about his ability to return. The Yemeni leader has reportedly received bad burns to his face and to 40 percent of his body, according to officials not authorized to speak on the record.

The Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Abdullah, called for Saleh to accept an accord to give up power after 33 years in office, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Though Saleh has been a strong ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, U.S. officials say counterterrorism work would continue with other leaders -- a claim questioned by analysts such as Simon Henderson and Daniel Green of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Terrorist attacks on the U.S. have been planned in Yemen. Its strategic location in the Arabian Gulf, the source of almost 20 percent of U.S. oil supplies, makes the country’s stability an administration priority.

Yemen’s tribal divisions and power centers mean the U.S. has limited ability to shape events or curb violence there, analysts say. The Saudis have had influence in Yemen through proximity and money.

“There’s an enormous amount at stake,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a telephone interview. “We’re not talking about implementing democracy in Yemen. I think that right now the focus and emphasis is on trying to avert civil war.”

The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, has been meeting with Yemeni officials and the opposition, trying to understand what steps they are planning next, Clinton said.

The U.S. has received no indication from Saleh whether he intends to return and is unsure of his plans, according to one of the administration officials who couldn’t talk on the record.

Beyond trying to speak to Saleh and others on the ground, the U.S. has limited options, said Mark Quarterman, director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The U.S. is finding there’s not really much they can do now,” Quarterman said in a telephone interview. “It can urge groups to talk, it can urge processes that will lead to a solution or reconciliation, but this is going to be decided in the mountains of Yemen, not in any office anywhere.”

Yemen ranks 15th out of 60 countries in the 2010 Failed States Index created by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, with only Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan in worse shape in Asia and the Middle East.

The government has waged a battle against Shiite Muslim secessionists in the north, while coping with a separate secessionist movement and the militant group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south.

Anti-government tribal groups have fought Saleh’s forces since the president refused on May 22 to adhere to a Gulf Cooperation Council accord that called for him to step down within 30 days, with parliamentary elections to be held. It was the third time that talks led by the six-member GCC -- consisting of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- had failed.

U.S. and Saudi interests are closely aligned on Yemen, Coleman and others say. While the U.S. concern is a power vacuum from a security perspective, the Saudis, who share a porous 1,000-mile border with Yemen, would also have to contend with poor Yemenis flooding over their border looking for work.

“They fear it from an economic perspective, let alone the Islamic radicalism, the extremism, the terrorism, the drugs” that could pour across the border, Coleman said.

Finding the right mix that will be the most stable outcome for Yemen will have to incorporate all players. “There are a lot of different moving pieces here,” she said.

The focus of that transition will have to be on preventing civil war, said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based branch of the Washington policy group. “That’s the nightmare for everyone.”

“If there is a civil war it is going to touch everyone, the U.S., Saudi, Yemenis,” Sharqieh said in a telephone interview. “It would be the ideal environment for al-Qaeda.”

Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties, the main opposition coalition, said it supports the move that transferred power to Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi after Saleh’s departure.

The vice president is assuming Saleh’s duties “until the president returns,” Abdu Janadi, deputy information minister, said in a phone interview. Hadi has said Saleh will return in the “coming days,” according to state-run Saba news agency.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the U.S. counterterrorism efforts don’t depend on Saleh’s return. Those initiatives are coordinated with the Yemeni government and not with an individual, Toner said.

Analysts Henderson and Green warn that it will matter which individuals head the government. Hadi has only a small power base, they wrote in an analysis.

The new leader is likely to spend his initial months, even years, maneuvering to solidify power, they said.

“This does not bode well for U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism cooperation,” Green and Henderson wrote. “Like Saleh, a weak president might see the local al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as both an enemy and an ally.”

In October 2010, Yemeni militants attempted to send two parcel bombs to U.S. synagogues. The bombs were seized in the U.K. and Dubai. Yemen also serves as the base of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric who intelligence services say is responsible for planning a shooting rampage that killed 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, last year and the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.

The U.S. has provided Yemen with about $300 million a year in security and humanitarian assistance. For the 2010 fiscal year, military aid accounted for $155 million, including Huey helicopters, Humvee vehicles and night-goggles, according to the Pentagon.