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Israeli-Palestinian peace talks’ resumption put in doubt

Harriet Sherwood
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The terms and conditions of the top order on both sides become stumbling blocks

A picture of neglect:Palestinians hold photographs of prisoners jailed in Israel during a rally in the West Bank city of Jenin in this file photo.— Photo: AP
A picture of neglect:Palestinians hold photographs of prisoners jailed in Israel during a rally in the West Bank city of Jenin in this file photo.— Photo: AP

Moves towards a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are mired in rumours, rebuttals, criticism and confusion in an indication of the political and diplomatic swamp facing key negotiators and their mediator, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

In a high-profile dismissal of the embryonic process, Israel’s former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wrote on Facebook that there was “no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in the coming years, and what’s possible and important to do is conflict-management”.

Naftali Bennett, Economics Minister, insisted construction on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would continue, regardless of talks. The comments by two crucial coalition partners are a sign of hostility within the government over the agreement for preliminary talks forged by Mr. Kerry on Friday.

Meanwhile, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, denied that a firm decision had been taken to enter talks, saying the Palestinians were still discussing terms with Mr. Kerry. According to a Palestinian source, Mr. Kerry had written a letter giving a U.S. assurance that the basis of territorial talks would be the pre-1967 border, but it was not clear whether the letter had been delivered.

“If we have well-defined terms of reference and a clear time frame — by which we mean the end of the year — we will go into talks,” the source said.

Among the few formal statements of the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Cabinet colleagues that resuming the diplomatic process was “a vital strategic interest of the state of Israel, first of all because we want peace”. However, any agreement would be put to a referendum, he added.

Israeli President Shimon Peres congratulated his Palestinian counterpart on “a brave and historic decision to return to negotiations”. He added: “Don’t listen to the sceptics, you did the right thing.” Among the sceptics were Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, which described any engagement in talks by the Palestinian leadership as a “betrayal”. There was no firm indication of when talks in Washington might begin. Mr. Kerry said on Friday that if everything went “as expected” the first meeting would be “within a week or so”.

The main sticking point continues to be the Palestinian demand that the pre-1967 borders form the baseline for territorial negotiations, a guarantee which Israel refuses to give. If Mr. Kerry fails to persuade the Palestinians they have firm U.S. backing on the issue, talks may fail to get off the ground. There is also disagreement over the timeframe. Israel is pushing for negotiations to last up to a year, fuelling concern among critics who believe Mr. Netanyahu is seeking to give the appearance of diplomatic co-operation while stalling for as long as possible on any outcome.

Any likely agreed time frame will take the Palestinians well beyond the potential flashpoint of the U.N. General Assembly in September, at which they could renew their efforts to become a member state of the global body, a move fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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