Palestinian negotiating team quits, but it may not mean end of talks

Posted by Mel Frykberg on November 13, 2013 

— The Palestinian Authority’s peace negotiations team announced its resignation on Wednesday after holding a tense emergency meeting in Ramallah that went on for hours. The meeting was called following a lack of progress in the peace talks with Israel and an announcement by the Israeli government on Tuesday that it was going ahead with plans to build approximately 24,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had threatened on Tuesday night to call off the talks and demanded Israel retract its home-building plans, something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did on Wednesday, after the U.S. objected and said it was "deeply concerned" by the plans.

"We were surprised by it and we are seeking explanation from the Israeli government," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "It was not discussed in advance. We don’t recognize the legitimacy of settlements."

Netanyahu's quick halt to the plans, however, is unlikely to assuade Palestinian anger, which has been building for month. During the current round of negotiations, which began in July, the Palestinians have threatened on a number of occasions to resign if the Israelis went ahead with settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Those threats were never carried out, even after the Israelis announced other new settlement plans. Some analysts have suggested that Israel’s recent release of a second batch of Palestinian prisoners several weeks ago was meant to persuade the Palestinian negotiating team to coinue attending the talks. The Palestinian Authority denied the speculation, however.

The scale of the Tuesday's announced settlement plans forced the negotiating team to take action, however. Whether it will make a difference in the talks was unclear.

A Palestinian official who asked to remain anonymous as he was not an official spokesman noted that the Palestinians have pulled out of peace talks before. “We stopped negotiations in 2006 for this reason too," he said.

Another high-ranking Palestinian official told the Israeli daily Haaretz that Abbas wouldn’t take any strong action without coordinating with the Americans first. Abbas added that he was trying to persuade the negotiating team to return and if they refused that a new negotiating team would be appointed. In any case, talks wouldn’t resume for about a week.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who didn’t go into detail on the reasons behind his resignation, said that no talks had taken place in the last week as well due to concerns about a lack of progress.

Abbas has said he is committed to the full nine months of negotiations as laid out by the Americans. Furthermore, the PA doesn’t want to be blamed for the negotiations collapsing.

And Netanyahu's fast backtracking on the settlement announcement shows more flexibility than many give him credit for. In any case, Israel officially wants the talks to continue.

“We are at the table and we assume the Palestinians will be at the table too,” Israel Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Paul Hirschson told McClatchy. “We take the negotiations very seriously. There is a deal to be done and we are waiting for the Palestinians so we can implement that deal.”

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