JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders failed Tuesday to show up for what was to have been the first high-profile meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials in more than 20 months, signaling how distant the two sides have become.
Just minutes before Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a spokesman for the Palestinian government announced that its leadership was sending a negotiator and low-level official in Fayyads stead. Earlier in the day, Palestinian officials said Fayyad had reservations but refused to elaborate.
You cannot say that it is one issue. It is not that they have withheld taxes from us unjustly, or expanded the settlements as they wish, or defied international law in their treatment of Palestinians. It is many issues together that have led all of the Palestinian leadership to reconsider any official involvement with Israel, said one Palestinian official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasnt authorized to speak to reporters. He added that whoever attended the meeting with Netanyahu would deliver a letter on behalf of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arguing that the Palestinian Authority government — set up as an interim part of the 1993 Oslo accords peace plan — had "lost its raison detre.
"As a result of actions taken by successive governments, the Palestinian National Authority no longer has any authority, and no meaningful jurisdiction in the political, economic, territorial and security spheres," Abbas wrote. The letter also demanded a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and deplored Israels lack of commitment to peace negotiations.
The Palestinian official said that earlier drafts of the letter had included stronger language, including a direct threat that the Palestinian Authority would disband if progress werent made on an independent Palestinian state.
Israeli leaders refused to comment on the absence of senior Palestinian leadership. An Israeli spokesman, speaking only anonymously as a matter of policy, said Israel would respond to the Palestinian letter within the coming weeks, and that Israel remained committed to peace talks without preconditions.
Rumors have long been swirling in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority could dismantle itself in response to the lack of progress in peace talks. The last serious peace negotiation took place under U.S. mediation three years ago. It fell apart when Palestinian and Israeli leaders failed to compromise over the issue of settlements, with Netanyahu insisting that it was Israels right to continue building on land the Palestinians have earmarked for their future state.
Disagreements over the settlement issue have grown into an unbreachable chasm between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, said one Foreign Ministry official who recently briefed reporters on the condition that he not be named. There is no level of communication that is going well at this point, he said.
Palestinians have begun to look outside the traditional framework of mediated peace talks to advance their cause.
Palestinian officials have promised to present the United Nations with a series of motions soon that call for Israel to be investigated over its settlement-building policy. They also have suggested that the Palestinian Authority might bring lawsuits against Israel in the International Criminal Court and file lawsuits against Israeli military and political leaders.
We are looking to other avenues to achieve our goals, Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said. The traditional models have not proven fruitful.
Many Palestinians asked why their leaders had waited so long to excuse themselves from the meeting with Netanyahu. Earlier Tuesday, thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike to protest conditions and demand an end to detentions without trial. Some 3,500 prisoners refused meals on the Palestinian "Prisoners Day," and 1,200 said theyd continue with an open-ended hunger strike, according to Sivan Weizman, an Israeli prison service spokeswoman.
Palestinian commentators said Fayyads decision not to attend the talks with Netanyahu stemmed from not wanting to be seen meeting with the Israeli leader on a day when Palestinian prisoners had launched such a well-publicized action.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)