Palestinians hope peace efforts can be salvaged

AP News
Posted: Jan 02, 2012 11:11 AM
Palestinians hope peace efforts can be salvaged

The chief Palestinian peace negotiator said Monday his first meeting with Israelis in more than a year will be a last-ditch effort to salvage the peace process and warned that the Palestinians would explore alternatives if no progress is made.

Saeb Erekat said he was holding out hope for Tuesday's meeting in Jordan, but acknowledged his expectations were low as he reiterated his long-standing demand for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction. Without a breakthrough, he warned, the Palestinians will be forced to examine alternatives to peace talks at the end of the month. Those could include again trying for recognition at the U.N.

"The Jordanian efforts are the last-minute efforts to salvage the situation," Erekat warned.

Erekat is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's peace envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, at Tuesday's meeting. It is the first time the sides are meeting since negotiations collapsed in September 2010.

Officials say the meeting is not a formal negotiating session. Instead, it is aimed at finding enough common ground to resume negotiations.

The meeting is taking place under the auspices of the Quartet, an international group that mediates Mideast peace efforts. The Quartet, consisting of the U.S., European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has been trying to revive talks for months with the goal of forging a peace deal by the end of this year.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

A short-lived round of peace talks broke down in September 2010 after an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction expired.

The Palestinians say they will not resume talks unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They say it is a sign of bad faith if Israel continues to build on the very lands the Palestinians claim for their independent state. The Palestinians also say Israel must agree to withdraw to its pre-1967 lines as the basis for the future border of the two countries.

Speaking to reporters in the West Bank, Erekat said the future of peace efforts depended on what the Israeli delegation brings to the meeting in Jordan.

"We hope that the Israeli government would reciprocate the Jordanian efforts by announcing cessation of settlement activities and the acceptance of the concept of the two-state solutions on the '67 (borders), so we can resume negotiations in accordance with the Quartet statement of Sept. 23," he said.

In September, the Quartet called for the sides to meet within one month to agree upon a negotiating agenda, and to present proposals for borders and security within three months.

The Palestinians believe the clock is already ticking and have already presented proposals on these issues. They say the timeline expires at the end of January, and if there is no progress, they will seek alternatives.

Officials say the options include resuming their efforts to win acceptance as a member state at the United Nations _ an option that Israel bitterly opposes in the absence of a peace deal _ and seeking other international action against Israel, such as a U.N. resolution condemning settlement activity. Erekat stressed that no decisions have been made.

Israel has rejected all of the Palestinian demands and says negotiations should start without preconditions. Netanyahu has already said he opposes a return to the 1967 lines.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev expressed hope that the meeting in Jordan will "bring about as soon as possible the resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians."

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"The only way to achieve peace and reconciliation is through dialogue," he added.

While Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is nothing new, the situation has been complicated by recent developments.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in the midst of reconciliation efforts with the Hamas militant group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from his forces in 2007. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and has warned that it cannot make peace with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has sent mixed messages about Abbas' peace efforts. Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, has said he would not stand in the way if Abbas chooses to resume negotiations.

But in Gaza on Monday, Hamas officials urged Abbas to call off the meeting in Jordan. "We ask the Palestinian Authority to give priority to the reconciliation between Palestinians and to continue to reject any meeting or negotiations with the occupation," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Hamas has been emboldened by the growing strength of Islamic groups throughout the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The secular Jordanian regime is also eager to counter the growing Islamist influence. A failed peace process would strengthen Islamists inside Jordan and potentially spill over from the West Bank into Jordan, whose population is already heavily Palestinian.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to attend Tuesday's meeting to help strengthen Jordan's King Abdullah II. But with prospects for success slim, it appeared unlikely that the talks would be little more than a short-term boost to the king.