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Abbas joins Arab forum on reviving Israeli talks

US secretary of state, who met the PA leader ahead of talks today with Netanyahu, wants to alter parts of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, flew to Qatar yesterday for discussions with Arab leaders in a bid to revive a decade-old peace initiative.

The gathering in Doha coincides with a push from John Kerry, the US secretary of state, to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

The proposal, endorsed by the Arab League, offered Israel normalised relations with the Arab world in return for, among other things, its withdrawal from the territories captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Details of Mr Abbas's meeting with League officials yesterday were not disclosed, but the organisation will send a delegation to Washington in coming weeks with plans to "end the Israeli occupation", said Mohammed Subeih, the 22-member group's under secretary.

Mr Kerry yesterday privately met Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister in Jerusalem, a day after he met Mr Abbas in Ramallah.

He was due to meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu today before flying to London for a Group of Eight gathering of foreign ministers.

Mr Kerry wants to modify parts of the Arab peace proposal concerning security and borders but, at least in public, Palestinian officials have bristled at the idea.

"Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative but we refused," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and aide to Mr Abbas, told Voice of Palestine radio on Sunday.

Mr Kerry expressed hope of reviving the peace process.

"I wouldn't be back here for my multiple-whatever-umpteenth trip here as a senator and secretary, and for my third trip to the region as a secretary already," he said in Jerusalem.

"I believe that if we can get on a track where people are working in good faith to address the bottom-line concerns, it is possible to be able to make progress and make peace."

Palestinians expressed dismay last month when Barack Obama, the US president, said on a visit to Ramallah that he did not view an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, which is a key Palestinian demand.

"We're patiently waiting to see what Kerry proposes but there's no real chances for peace talks if the settlement-freeze demand isn't met," said a senior official in the Fatah faction, also led by Mr Abbas.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in 2010, collapsed because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop settlements being built.

In his 90-minute meeting with Mr Abbas, Mr Kerry offered other incentives to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table, the unofficial Palestinian news agency Maan reported yesterday.

One included broadening PA control over the about 60 per cent of the West Bank that Israel directly administers, known as Area C.

The PA, which has no remit in Area C, administers less than 20 per cent of the West Bank.

Mr Abbas, for his part, brought up as a top priority the issue of the more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, the news agency reported.

He also reaffirmed the Palestinian demand that Israel use as a basis for negotiations the boundaries that prevailed before June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, during which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Palestinians want those Israeli-occupied territories, now home to more than 500,000 settlers, for their state.

Last week, in a gesture to Washington, Mr Abbas decided to suspend measures to elevate Palestinian status in the UN.

In November, the Palestinians angered Israel and the US by winning their bid to become a non-member observer state in the General Assembly.

An official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation said Mr Abbas asked Mr Kerry to pressure Israeli officials to propose potential borders of a Palestinian state.

That would demonstrate whether Israel was interested in negotiating using the 1967 boundaries as a basis, which both the Palestinians and Mr Obama support despite Mr Netanyahu's objections.

Otherwise, the official said, compromising on the Arab peace plan could yield nothing for Palestinians.

"If we compromise on this, where will else will Washington and Israel ask us to compromise?" the official asked.

"When there used to be light at the end of the tunnel, there was room for flexibility in the peace process.

"That was when the political horizon was clear, but now, after 20 years of negotiations, that's too much."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

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