Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says Israelis have to accept references of peace process
Israeli and Palestinian officials met for the first time in more than a year and agreed to hold further preliminary talks in Jordan as part of an effort to renew formal peace negotiations.
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“We do not want to raise our expectations at this stage, but we also do not want to underestimate the importance of the meeting, which gathered the Palestinians and the Israelis face to face,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said at a news conference to sum up the talks in Amman.
The first get-together between Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho, since the breakdown of talks in September 2010 was arranged by the international group known as the Quartet, with help from Jordan’s King Abdullah.
The odds that Israel and the Palestinians will resolve their conflict this year “are slim to none,” said Aaron David Miller, a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who served for a quarter-century as a Middle East negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The combination of this year’s U.S. presidential election and the uncertainties surrounding the Arab world’s uprisings and their aftermath in Egypt and elsewhere means no progress toward resolving issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the rights of Palestinian refugees is likely until at least 2013, Miller said in a telephone interview.
Future talks will also be held in Jordan, Judeh said. Israeli and Palestinian officials declined to comment, saying Judeh spoke for all participants.
The two sides will talk again in Jordan on Jan. 6, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a briefing this week in Washington.
“That is important, that this dialog is continuing,” Nuland said. “We hope it will give us some momentum.”
To even reach the negotiating stage, Erekat and Molcho would have to resolve a fundamental conflict between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who says peace talks can’t begin until Israel freezes West Bank settlement construction, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says building will continue.
Abbas told reporters earlier this week in the West Bank city of Ramallah that he may take “harsh” action if the talks with Israel don’t lead to a settlement freeze by Jan. 26, the date set by the Quartet for the two sides to submit proposals on security arrangements and a final border between them.
“We will discuss and study and decide what to do after the 26th,” Abbas told reporters at a ceremony to open a legal studies center in Ramallah. “So far, I cannot reveal what the measures are because they are not ready yet, but we will take measures that might be harsh.”
Also working against the resumption of peace talks is a rapprochement between Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamic Hamas movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Netanyahu says he won’t negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to respond directly to Abbas’s comment about the prospect of the talks collapsing.
“It is our sincere hope that we will see the beginning of a process of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians and that we move toward a peace deal,” Regev said. “There is no alternative that can bring peace.”
Erekat and Molcho met first this week with the Quartet representatives and later sat down by themselves, Judeh said. The Quartet is made up of the EU, the U.S, the United Nations and Russia.
Hamas condemned the Palestinian Authority for its willingness to meet with Israeli officials in Jordan and to present them with the formal proposals on security and borders.
The talks were a “farce, comedy and a waste of time,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a telephone interview from the Gaza Strip.
Hamas ousted forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah faction from Gaza in 2007 to gain full control of the Palestinian enclave after winning parliamentary elections the year before. Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, are holding reconciliation talks in an effort to form a unity government before Palestinian elections.
Israel has said Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist and pledge to abide by prior agreements before it can join any talks.
While the Israeli and Palestinian officials meet in Jordan, the second Arab nation after Egypt to make peace with the Jewish state, Gaza’s top Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has been on a regional tour that includes Turkey and Iran, said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group.
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down more than a year ago after Netanyahu declined to renew a 10- month freeze on building in West Bank settlements.
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 Islamist Hamas.
The quiet talks hosted by Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators 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 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 this 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 and reconsidering Palestinian security cooperation with Israel.
“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,” Gaqaman 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,” he said. “We want to create the appropriate atmosphere to reach solutions.”