Israelis, Palestinians meet in Jordan for 1st time in a year

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 3, 2012 

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian officials met Tuesday in Jordan's capital, Amman, in the first attempt at peace talks in more than a year. As expected, there were no breakthroughs.

Diplomats from the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — witnessed the talks, though analysts said they saw no prospects for the two sides to agree soon to settle the decades-long standoff.

"It does not look like 2012 will be the year we solve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," said one senior "quartet" diplomat who spoke only on the condition that neither his name nor country be identified, because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "It's ironic and maybe a bit sad that I can say that just a few days into 2012, but that's what it looks like."

Even as the two sides agreed to open the year with the talks, each was plotting a scheme that seemed intended to prevent agreement.

Palestinian officials are hoping to use their newfound backing in the U.N. to launch investigations into Israel and to rally support against Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his aides to look into legislation that would retroactively legalize Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that have enraged Palestinians, and circumvent demolition orders that have been issued against several key settlements.

Officials close to Netanyahu, who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said he'd continue expanding several key settlements, most notably in East Jerusalem. On Tuesday, less than two hours before the parties were scheduled to meet in Amman, officials in Jerusalem announced that 300 more homes would be built in an East Jerusalem settlement.

"We have not seen the two sides come closer together on any of the major issues. In fact, we have seen a steady distancing," said one U.S. official, who visited the region and reported to Washington that efforts to bring the parties to the negotiation table at this juncture were "unwise." The official also spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the discussions.

Palestinian officials maintain that peace talks are impossible while Israeli settlement construction continues. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said before the meeting that any talks were doomed to failure until Israel met that condition.

"Netanyahu needs to freeze the construction of settlements and accept the '67 outline for a two-state solution before we return to the negotiations table," Erekat said.

He accused Netanyahu of sabotaging peace talks by announcing settlement construction projects before every attempt to resume negotiations.

Israeli officials retorted that they'll enter peace negotiations only with no preconditions, adding that they'd agreed to attend Tuesday's meeting only because the Palestinians didn't insist on any preliminary statements.

"This issue is very important to us and the Palestinians," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "It is crucial from our perspective that even if an agreement isn't reached, that both our neighbors and our friends in the world should know that the Israeli government has taken every reasonable and possible step in order to try to reach an agreement."

Israeli officials sought to cast blame on the Palestinians for the stagnation in peace talks, saying in a news briefing that the Palestinians were "not capable or able" to negotiate. They spoke anonymously as a condition of the briefing.

"There is a sense that the Palestinians were pushed into this meeting by the Europeans and Americans," one Foreign Ministry official said. He added that the Palestinian leadership was under a great deal of pressure not to proceed with peace talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to proceed with reconciliation efforts with the Islamist group Hamas — which controls the Gaza Strip — and elections that would create a national unity government. Israel has threatened to cut off tax receipts it collects on the Palestinian Authority's behalf from Abbas' West Bank-based government if he goes ahead with the move.

Palestinian officials said they found it ironic that Israel would blame them for the lack of progress on peace negotiations. Netanyahu's largely right-wing coalition, they said, was to blame for the stagnation.

"It is hard to build expectations for a meeting with a right-wing government," Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said. "It won't be useful; this is only a cosmetic meeting."

Erekat and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho, both of whom traveled to Amman in motorcades, were expected to return home after the talks, and no follow-up sessions were scheduled.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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