Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to meet

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 04, 2012 9:26 AM
Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to meet

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers will meet later this month, officials said on Wednesday, but the rare talks may only sharpen differences that have brought peace negotiations to a standstill.

The Palestinians said they will present Benjamin Netanyahu with a letter spelling out Israel's failure to implement a 2003 "road map" that includes a halt to settlement activity as a step towards achieving a final peace agreement.

"The real test in front of Netanyahu is to stop the settlements, after which he will find that we are ready for negotiations," Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, told Reuters.

"These aren't conditions, but what we want him to say is that he's ready to end the occupation," he said.

An Israeli government official said Netanyahu would reiterate, at the meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, his call for peace talks to get under way without any terms for their resumption.

U.S.-hosted peace negotiations froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend the 10-month partial construction freeze he had imposed at Washington's behest to coax them into talks.

The official said Netanyahu would also repeat his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any peace agreement -- something they oppose.

Fayyad will become the highest-level Palestinian official to have met Netanyahu since the negotiations broke off.

But the upcoming talks, which the officials on both sides said would be held after Jewish holiday of Passover that ends on April 14, will not be attended by the highest-ranking Palestinian leader in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nabil Shaath, a senior official in Abbas's Fatah movement, said the Palestinian letter to Netanyahu "is an assessment of where we are" in the peace process.

Israel, he said, has pushed ahead with settlement building and rejected negotiations for a Palestinian state based on the lines that existed before Israeli forces captured the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, "have done all our duties of keeping security and better governance", Shaath said in English.

"This situation cannot lead us to a peace process," he said. "The consequence of this letter is to put Mr. Netanyahu on the spot. He has now to answer".

"INDEFENSIBLE"

Netanyahu has called the pre-1967 borders indefensible and said the future of settlements, which Palestinians fear could deny them a viable state, should be decided in negotiations.

"I want to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians because I do not want a bi-national state," Netanyahu said at a news conference on Tuesday marking the third anniversary of his right-wing government.

"Ensuring the existence of a Jewish state is not just a matter of separation, it is also a matter of security, defense and keeping our vital, national interests," he said.

"This requires negotiations, but there is no way to conclude negotiations if you don't start negotiations. Until this moment the Palestinians, not us, have chosen not to negotiate and I hope they change their minds in the coming months."

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967 and home to 2.5 million Palestinians.

Most world powers deem the Jewish settlements illegal. Israel, which cites historical and biblical links to those areas, disputes this and has said it will keep major settlement blocs under any eventual peace accord.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning in Ramallah and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan)