Israelis, Palestinians lock horns ahead of peace talks

JERUSALEM — Less than a week after the U.S. announced the relaunching of Middle East peace negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are already disputing the goals, agenda and conditions for the talks.

The jostling for position began Friday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the formal start on Sept. 2 at the State Department. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the talks would initially focus on security issues, but Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority Chairman, rebutted that the talks would focus on all final status issues, and would be built on "previous discussions."

While Netanyahu has avoided discussing an extension of the current freeze on settlement construction — currently due to expire on Sept. 26 — the Palestinians said the talks would be "immediately" called off if Israel issues construction tenders for the West Bank settlements, which they see as illegally built on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

Even the invitation was a matter of contention. Palestinian negotiators said the Palestinian Authority assented to a joint statement by the so-called Quartet, not a U.S. invitation. The Quartet of Middle East peacemakers — the U.S., Britain, the European Union and Russia — issued a call for direct talks that included the Palestinian's right to a two-state solution largely based on 1967 borders. Israel, on the other hand, didn't respond to the Quartet, but to Clinton's statement, which included no caveats or conditions.

Many in the foreign diplomatic community in Jerusalem say the two sides are as far apart as ever and doubt the U.S. can meet the current deadline set by Clinton of one year for an agreement.

Yaakov Edri, a member of the centrist Kadima party in the Israeli Knesset, or legislature, summed up the low expectations, telling Israeli reporters: "Both sides are already preparing their alibis as to why the talks will blow up."

However, Yigal Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, told McClatchy the U.S. is looking for "creative" solutions to many of these problems, including a way to meet the Palestinian demands for an ongoing settlement freeze, while giving Netanyahu space to navigate his largely conservative, pro-settlement coalition.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was adamant when he told reporters Monday that "if Israel resumes settlement activities in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, we cannot continue negotiations." He added, however, that reaching a peace deal was "doable."

"We are not starting from the beginning, from scratch," he said, referring to previous positions reached in the peace talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been holding for nearly two decades.

P.J. Crowley, the U.S. State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is aware of the issues lying in the way of the negotiations.

"We are very mindful of the Palestinian position, and once we are into direct negotiations we expect that both parties will do everything within their power to create an environment for those negotiations to continue constructively," he said.

Crowley added that "once that negotiation starts, it will be incumbent upon both the Israelis and Palestinians to avoid steps that can complicate that negotiation."

While the Obama administration has put top priority on reaching a Mideast peace deal, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments have embraced recent efforts to move negotiations forward.

The Palestinian Fatah party, which rules the West Bank, has failed to set a new date for its own internal elections and been unable to reach reconciliation with Hamas officials who took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Netanyahu also has faced internal threats to his coalition, which is largely dominated by right-wing religious parties who support the settlers' movement. If Netanyahu were to continue the current settlement moratorium, lawmakers from within his own party have threatened to bring down the government.

Israeli Cabinet member Dan Meridor told Israeli television Monday that Netanyahu is quietly seeking to reach a compromise with the assistance of the U.S.

"There is no logic in building in territory intended for the Palestinian state," he said. "By the same reason, there is no logic not to build in territories that will be inside Israel."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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