Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting quietly in recent weeks in hopes of ending a three-year standstill in peace efforts, both sides confirmed Sunday.
Officials acknowledged the agenda of the recent talks has been modest, and stressed there is no breakthrough in sight. Nonetheless, the revelations gave a small sign of hope that a formula can be found to restart formal negotiations addressing core issues.
Peace talks broke down in December 2008, and have remained frozen ever since. The Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations until Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians also want Israel to accept its pre-1967 boundaries, before it captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as the basis of a final border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says talks should restart without preconditions.
Palestinian officials said their chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and Netanyahu's envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, have been meeting on a regular basis in hopes of finding a formula for restarting talks. They said they have not eased their demands, but were open to scheduling a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The two men have not met since a short-lived attempt to relaunch negotiations in late 2010.
The Palestinian officials said Abbas is seeking a goodwill gesture from Israel, such as a "significant release" of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. They said Abbas, who is locked in a power struggle with the Islamic Hamas movement, feels he needs a concrete accomplishment from the meetings or risk facing ridicule at home. Israel is holding about 4,000 Palestinian prisoners, and Abbas is seeking the release of several hundred Palestinians, including people who were arrested before a 1993 interim peace accord, those with significant health problems, and prominent political figures.
An Israeli official confirmed there have been "ongoing contacts at different levels." He refused to elaborate, but said Israel is always ready to consider goodwill gestures. He cited Israeli concessions that ended hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners last month, and the recent return of the remains of dozens of dead Palestinian militants to their families.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic issue.
Negotiators Erekat and Molcho also held a series of meetings earlier this year under Jordanian auspices. But the dialogue failed to produce any breakthroughs because of disagreements over the settlement issue.
The Palestinians view settlement construction as a sign of bad faith and say there is no point in talking as long as Israel builds homes for its citizens on occupied lands. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish Likud Party, has traditionally been a strong supporter of the settlers. But in recent months, he has shown signs of moderation, warning that Israel's continued control over millions of Palestinians is unsustainable and would jeopardize the state's future as a democracy with a Jewish majority.
Last month, Netanyahu brought the main opposition party Kadima into his government, giving him a coalition that holds 94 of parliament's 120 seats. The supermajority has reduced Netanyahu's reliance on hardliners in the previous coalition and raised speculation that he may be planning more significant concessions to the Palestinians.
Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.