Mideast talks not assured to continue
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Disagreements that blocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the past five years have not been fully resolved, despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent announcement of progress, and there’s no clear path to a resumption of talks.
Palestinian officials said Sunday their key demand remains: Ahead of any talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must accept Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as the starting point for drawing the border of a future state of Palestine. They say Kerry’s renewed endorsement of that frontier as a baseline in closed-door talks is not enough, and that they need to hear from Netanyahu himself.
It’s not clear if this amounts to last-minute maneuvering or if the Palestinians will walk away if Netanyahu refuses to accept that formula, as he has done repeatedly. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s right-wing allies were adamant that Israel would not budge, and Netanyahu appeared to be trying to lower expectations about any future negotiations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is skeptical of Netanyahu’s willingness to negotiate in good faith, suspecting the Israeli hard-liner is more interested in a peace “process” as an antidote to Israel’s international isolation than in an actual deal.
Abbas has strong reasons to return to the table, however, even if it’s not on his terms.
He can ill afford to rebuff the U.S. and Europe, the financial backers of his self-rule government, the perpetually cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. The talks envisioned by Kerry are to last for six to nine months, according to the Palestinians, rather than being open-ended, which would allow Abbas to argue he’s simply testing Netanyahu’s intentions. And so far, Abbas has not faced a backlash at home as he inches toward negotiations.
Abbas has not spoken publicly since Friday, when Kerry announced an agreement that “establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations” between the two sides. Kerry cautioned at the time that “the agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”
On Sunday, Abbas’ office tried to clamp down on official chatter, saying only two aides, Nabil Abu Rdeneh and Yasser Abed Rabbo, are authorized to speak about the diplomatic efforts. Neither was available.
However, two Palestinian officials and two senior PLO figures – speaking on condition of anonymity because they wanted to avoid running afoul of Abbas’ edict – said a resumption of talks is not a done deal. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to meet in Washington in coming days or weeks, but they’ll have to hold more talks about the talks, just as Kerry did in six shuttle missions this year because gaps remain, the Palestinian officials said.
Kerry gave Abbas a number of assurances on the terms for the negotiations, but failed to secure detailed Israeli commitments, the officials said. This includes the issue of the 1967 borders, the scope of a possible slowdown in settlement construction, and a timetable for the release of dozens of veteran Palestinian prisoners, held for attacks carried out before the start of intermittent peace talks in 1993.
In Cairo, the Arab League reiterated Sunday that negotiations must be based on the 1967 frontier and include a timeline, as well as the prisoner release. Without this, hopes for success are dim, said Mohammed Sabih, a top league official for Palestinian affairs. “It is certain that this (Israeli) government does not want a two-state solution but wants one Jewish state and the exclusion of the Palestinian side,” he said in a statement.