Middle East

Abbas: Exploratory talks with Israel over

Jordan's King Abdullah (R) welcomes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Royal Palace in Amman January 25, 2012. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

RAMALLAH: Exploratory peace talks with Israel have ended with nothing to show for them, the Palestinian president said Wednesday, pledging to consult with the Arab League about the next moves and leaving open the possibility of an extension.

After a total break of more than a year, international mediators persuaded the sides to send their negotiators to Jordan to explore the possibility of resuming peace talks. Reflecting the depth of their differences, they could not even agree on when to submit proposals.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would discuss the prospects with the Arab League next week, Israel wants to keep talking, and Abbas is under mounting international pressure not to walk away.

Visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to meet separately over the next two days with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two officials involved in the contacts said she is trying to put together a package of Israeli incentives that would keep the Palestinians in the talks.

U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon will also visit Israel and the Palestinians territories next week to reinforce efforts to revive the deadlocked peace process.

The U.N. secretary-general is expected to arrive in Amman Monday after attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa at the weekend.

In the Jordanian-mediated exploratory talks, Israeli and Palestinian envoys met several times over the past month, including Wednesday. The Quartet of international mediators – the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia – said last fall that it expected both sides to submit detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements, in hopes the dialogue would evolve into full-fledged talks.

Palestinian officials said they submitted their proposals, but that Israel did not. “If we demarcate the borders, we can return to negotiations, but Israel does not want to do that,” Abbas said Wednesday, after talks in Jordan with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Israel says it has submitted a document outlining the areas that need to be discussed, but it was not characterized as a proposal.

Abbas said he would consult with the Arab League – which usually rubber stamps his decisions – on Feb. 4. This would allow for an additional nine days of diplomatic maneuvers to save the talks.

A walkout could cost the Palestinians international sympathy at a time when they seek global support for U.N. membership for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel is eager to keep talking and to “try to achieve a historic agreement before the end of the year,” an Israeli government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. “We hope that the Palestinians aren’t looking for an excuse to walk away from the table.”

Ashton said during a visit to Gaza Wednesday that “we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations.”

The two sides disagreed on how much time was set aside for the exploratory talks.

The Palestinians said the deadline is Thursday, or three months after the Quartet issued its marching orders, while Israel believes it has until April, or three months after meetings begin.

Underlying the impasse is Abbas’ conviction that it’s impossible to reach an acceptable border deal with the hard-line Netanyahu.

The Palestinians are ready for minor adjustments in the lines of the West Bank through land swaps, but Israel has not submitted a proposal. Netanyahu has not endorsed the land-swap concept and insists that East Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Netanyahu has also rejected Palestinian demands that he halt construction in Jewish settlements on occupied lands or recognize the pre-1967 war’s cease-fire line as a baseline for border talks.

Abbas argues that without such assurances, there is no point in resuming negotiations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2012, on page 9.




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