RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A stormy, high-level meeting of senior Palestinian leaders called to discuss U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest peace proposal ended with a decision early Friday to demand guarantees that Israel agree on the general border of a future Palestinian state, officials said.
The demand casts a cloud of uncertainty over months of U.S. mediation efforts because Israel is weary of agreeing to preconditions, arguing it has not led to successful peace talks in the past. Palestinian officials said they wanted guarantees to ensure peace talks would lead to fruition.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to work with Kerry "to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible," according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
After two separate meetings, Palestinian officials said they decided to send top negotiator Saeb Erekat to meet with Kerry "and inform him that Palestinians want guarantees regarding the general border," said Wasel Abu Yussef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, who was in the meeting.
A U.S. official said Kerry will meet on Friday with Erekat in Amman, Jordan. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Kerry's schedule publicly, said there are no immediate plans for Kerry to meet an Israeli negotiator.
Abu Yussef was referring to Israel's de facto border that separates the Jewish state from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war, alongside the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians claim those territories for their future state, with modifications reached through agreed "land swaps" that would see major Jewish settlement blocks built in the West Bank becoming part of Israel proper, in exchange for territories elsewhere.
Abu Yussef said Erekat would also ask for more clarifications from Kerry on what Israel expects from negotiations.
He said Palestinians did not want to reject Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations outright. Another official in the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said they felt pressure from Palestinians to not restart negotiations if they could not be seen producing substantive outcomes.
Suggesting Palestinian officials would be open to talks, they deliberately did not bring up their often-repeated demand that Israel stop building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks could resume.
The anonymous Palestinian official said they had decided, so far, not to make the demand this time. He said if Israel agreed on a general border route before negotiations began, it would delegitimize Jewish settlement building in areas expected to be part of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas convened the two meetings beginning Thursday with his advisors after a lengthy meeting with Kerry earlier in the week. While Kerry has not publicized details of his plan, the Arab League's decision Wednesday to endorse his proposal raised speculation that the Palestinians would agree. Abbas traditionally has sought the blessing of his Arab brethren before making any major diplomatic initiative.
U.S. officials played down hopes that negotiations would begin soon.
"There are currently no plans for an announcement on the resumption of negotiations," Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Kerry, told reporters in neighboring Jordan. An Israeli Cabinet minister said no deal was imminent.
A U.S. official said Kerry would consult with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Friday before ending his visit to the Middle East and returning to the United States but made no mention of an announcement of new negotiations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Kerry's plans publicly.
Kerry has been shuttling for months in search of a formula to allow resumption of talks after a nearly five-year break. Talks have been stalled since late 2008, with the status of Israeli settlements at the heart of the deadlock.
Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demands, saying talks should begin without preconditions.
Ahmed Majdalani, another executive committee member, said Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements.
He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel has balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.
Although the plan does not include a settlement freeze, it was not clear whether Israel would accept any reference to the 1967 lines.
Israeli Cabinet minister Yair Lapid said it was "too early to say" whether Kerry had found a formula for talks.
"Secretary Kerry has done a tremendous job in trying to put both sides together," he told The Associated Press. "Of course Israel is more than willing and has expressed its agreement to go back to the negotiation table, but apparently it's going to take a little more time."
While Israel has balked at Palestinian demands, the international community has largely rallied behind the Palestinian position on borders and Jewish settlements.
In a show of displeasure over the settlements, the European Union announced this week it would stop providing research and cooperation grants to Israeli entities that operate in the occupied territories. Israeli leaders condemned the decision.
On Thursday, Israeli President Shimon Peres urged the EU to reconsider the ban, saying it could undermine Kerry's efforts.
Peres urged the EU to "give priority to peace" and warned the ban "could cause another crisis."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.