Israel, Palestinians spar as peace contacts resume

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 09, 2012 8:24 AM
Israel, Palestinians spar as peace contacts resume

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed newly rekindled diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians Monday, accusing them of poor faith in peacemaking.

Firing back as Israeli and Palestinian envoys prepared a second round of the low-key but potentially decisive exploratory talks later in the day, the Palestinians said Israel was at fault for cementing its hold on the occupied West Bank.

Lieberman, a hardline coalition partner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is often sidelined in statecraft, told lawmakers in Jerusalem the Palestinians only agreed to resume contacts last week after being "dragged against their will" to Amman.

The Jordan meeting was the first since direct talks stalled in late 2010, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded a halt to Israeli settlement building before negotiations went any further. Israel had previously imposed a partial building freeze.

"They are preparing a groundwork of excuses to shift responsibility for the talks' failure to Israel," Lieberman said, according to an official transcript of the parliamentary briefing.

The Jordanian-hosted meeting was attended by the so-called Quartet of peace brokers -- the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations -- who on October 26 gave the sides three months to submit their proposals on territory and security.

The Palestinians see an insuperable obstacle in Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They want their own state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Most countries deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep certain settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George W. Bush.

INTERNATIONALISATION

"All sides in the Quartet and our brothers in Jordan see a complete seriousness from the Palestinian side, and an Israeli attempt to turn these negotiations into a waste of time, with an intensified campaign of settlement-building," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, senior adviser to Abbas.

In Amman, a regional diplomatic source described the second round of talks, held behind closed doors, as a chance to assess longer-term prospects.

"This is even more important" than the introductory meeting, the source said. "We have to see the follow-up, and what comes now."

Lieberman said that the Palestinians, who last year sidestepped Israel and defied Washington's censure by applying directly for full U.N. membership, planned to resume this "internationalisation" campaign after January 26, the target date set by the Quartet.

"Whoever talks about a 'breakthrough' with the Palestinians is clueless," he said, according to the transcript. "The key word is 'management' of the conflict with the Palestinians."

Speaking to Reuters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abed Rabbo said: "We will turn to the international community, and the U.N. Security Council in any event, not only to condemn settlement construction but to demand direct international intervention to protect the two-state solution."

A Netanyahu spokesman had no immediate reaction to Lieberman's remarks.

The conservative premier has himself criticized Abbas for seeking a power-sharing pact with rival Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza and reject permanent coexistence with Israel.

Abbas has also balked at Israel's demand that he recognize it specifically as a Jewish state.

But both sides have been rattled by popular upheavals that have bolstered Islamists in Jordan and Egypt. Pro-Palestinian sentiment in both countries, among the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel, often backs Hamas rather than Abbas.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Mark Heinrich)