Israel, Palestinians to meet Tuesday; prospects hazy

Reuters – By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM – Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet this week after more than a year of deadlocked peacemaking, officials said on Sunday, but both sides played down prospects of any imminent resumption of talks.

Yitzhak Molcho of Israel and Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat will meet on Tuesday in Jordan alongside representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

“This aims at reaching a common ground to resume direct talks between the two sides and to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord … by the end of 2012,” the official Jordanian news agency Petra quoted Mohammad al-Kayed, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Amman, as saying.

Negotiations stalled in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank as demanded by the Palestinians.

Palestinians say they cannot negotiate while Israel builds settlements on land where they intend to found a state. Israel says talks should have no preconditions.

Kayed said the Israelis and Palestinians would meet bilaterally as well as with the Quartet, “to build upon” their respective contacts with the international brokers.

Israel, in a statement announcing Molcho’s mission, said the negotiator would “take part in the Quartet meeting” and made no mention of Erekat or of direct contacts with the Palestinians.

Wasl Abu Yossef, a senior figure in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s umbrella PLO, described Tuesday’s meeting as an forum for the sides to “offer their positions on security and borders” as requested by the Quartet in October.

“This is not a resumption of negotiations,” Abu Yossef told Reuters in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s administration.

Erekat said the meeting would be “part of ongoing Jordanian efforts to compel Israel to comply with its international legal obligations … specifically its obligation to freeze all settlement construction in all the occupied Palestinian territory”.

Most countries deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings it reached in 2004 with then-U.S. President George Bush.

For its part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government criticises Abbas for holding power-sharing talks with rival Hamas Islamists who control Gaza and spurn permanent coexistence with Israel. Abbas has also balked at Israel’s demand that he recognise it as a Jewish state.

But both sides have been rattled by political upheaval that has bolstered Islamists in Jordan and Egypt, among the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel and where fierce pro-Palestinian sentiment often champions Hamas, rather than Abbas.

Kayed was quoted as describing the establishment of a Palestinian state as “a top Jordanian interest”.

Yoaz Hendel, a Netanyahu spokesman, thanked the Jordanians in a statement “for their initiative in convening the sides in accordance with the Quartet guidelines”.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has in recent months taken a leading role in attempts to broker new negotiations, stepping into the fray following the failure of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to revive diplomacy.