WEST BANK: Big obstacles in road to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
Even before direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations kick off in Washington on Sept. 2, the road there is littered with political landmines.
The Palestinians stated when they agreed on Friday, under U.S. and international pressure, to resume direct negotiations that if Israel resumed settlement construction in the West Bank, the talks would stop.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated that stance in letters he sent to leaders of the so-called quartet of international mediators involved in the Middle East peace process -- President Obama, Russian President Medvedev, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. His chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, repeated it on Monday in a press conference in Ramallah.
In these letters, according to Erekat, Abbas demanded that the international community take a strong and unequivocal position regarding Israel’s obligation to freeze all settlement activity, without exceptions, and he said that if settlements, house demolitions and evictions continued, Palestinians would not continue negotiating.
“If the government of Israel decides to submit new tenders for houses in the settlements after Sept. 26, then it has decided to shut down the door of negotiations,” Erekat said.
Sept. 26 marks the end of the 10-month freeze on new settlement construction Israel had agreed to in order to start indirect negotiations with the Palestinians.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the settlement freeze will not be extended.
Netanyahu said the talks would first focus on “real and sustainable security arrangements on the ground.” This means a demilitarized Palestinian state, a buffer in the Jordan Valley controlled by the Israeli army and control over the airspace and sea and land crossings.
He said Palestinians had to recognize Israel as “the national state of the Jewish people” and that any peace agreement should be based on an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Erekat, in the press conference, called this stance “unacceptable.”
“Netanyahu seems to have decided to go from negotiations to dictations,” he said. “There is a difference between dictations and negotiations. Netanyahu wants to decide the composition of negotiations even before they start. This is an awkward negotiating attitude.”
Erekat said the quartet statement issued in Brussels on Friday, the same day the U.S. had invited the parties to relaunch negotiations in Washington on Sept. 2, was what encouraged Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to accept the invitation for restarting direct negotiations.
The statement provided that “direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.”
It also called for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative,” which for the Palestinians were the basis for the direct talks.
Israel did not accept the quartet statement and only accepted the U.S. invitation, which said negotiations would resume without preconditions.
-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank