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ISRAEL: Don't restart negotiations from scratch, former peace-table adversaries agree

July 11, 2010 | 11:39 am

Two years ago Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei had a standing rendezvous at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, at least twice a week, to hash over hotly disputed issues such as borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem.

Back then meetings between the then-Israeli foreign minister and the former Palestinian Authority prime minister hardly drew notice. No reporters, no cameras and no fanfare.

But their return engagement on the same stage Sunday caused a mini stir since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since 2008 and they hadn't seen each other since.

Then, as now, the pair found much to argue about, especially when discussing how to divvy up the land both claim rightfully belongs to their people. But they shared one point of agreement: substantial progress had been made on major issues when the talks broke down and future discussions, if they resume, should pick up where they left off.

"The Annapolis process didn't fail,'' Livni told a forum sponsored by the German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. "It didn't end. It was stopped.... It needs to continue."

Neither Livni nor Qurei provided details about what had been agreed to, but others have said the two sides were closing in on an agreement that would set borders based on the 1967 Green Line with swaps that would give Palestinians new land in return for allowing Israel to keep its largest West Bank settlements.

Qurei said the negotiations collapsed in late 2008 amid a corruption scandal that brought down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the 22-day Gaza offensive and the change in U.S. administrations. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu altered course when he beat Livni for the prime minister's seat, expanding settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank and shifting the government's policy toward negotiations.

"If there is no stable policy, there will be no process,'' Qurei said.

The question of where to resume discussions is becoming an increasingly important one as the U.S. struggles to move from so-called proximity talks, under which U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell shuffles back and forth from Jerusalem to Ramallah, into face-to-face negotiations. President Obama said he hopes direct talks will resume in the next two months.

Palestinians are insisting that talks pick up where they left off. They also want Israel to halt settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

It's unclear if they'll get either. Netanyahu, who has been calling for Palestinians to resume talks, is signaling a desire to revisit some issues and wants no "preconditions" to the talks. That makes Palestinians wonder whether Netanyahu is ready to make a deal or just wants to restart talks to get the Americans and international community off his back.

Livni, now Israel's opposition leader, said trust was the key ingredient that made the Bush administration's Annapolis peace process possible. Because there was little external pressure to resume talks, either from the U.S. or from the public in Israel and the Palestinian territories, negotiators had confidence that the other side was there because they wanted to be, not because they were forced to be.

"It's not about history,'' she said. "It's not about who has more rights. It's about deciding how to divide the land to have two nations in order to give a future to our children.... The price of not having an agreement for Israel is higher than the price of having an agreement."

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem
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