x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Peace talks collapse as Israel vetoes settlement freeze

East Jerusalem proves stumbling block to settlements deal as both Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed each other.

Construction work continues on a new housing unit in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Homa yesterday.
Construction work continues on a new housing unit in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Homa yesterday.

TEL AVIV // Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed each other yesterday for causing the latest collapse in their peace talks, a day after the US said its efforts to persuade Israel to impose a new settlement freeze came to naught.

The US disclosure prompted Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, to urge Washington to pursue an "end-game for a Palestinian settlement". He said the US should push both sides to commit to a deadline for the creation of a Palestinian state before a two-state solution became impossible.

Palestinian officials are due to confer with Arab leaders in Cairo today about the US announcement. They are likely to discuss pursuing unilateral action to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state, particularly a bid for recognition at the United Nations Security Council .

Under US mediation, Israel and the Palestinians held three rounds of direct talks in September. But the negotiations broke down within weeks after Israel rejected the Palestinian demand to renew a 10-month partial settlement freeze that expired on September 26.

Since then, the US has tried to persuade Israel to renew the moratorium for another three months in return for a package of security and diplomatic perks.

The deal apparently fell through over Israel's insistence that disputed East Jerusalem be exempted from the freeze, and amid uncertainty over what would happen once the three months were over, analysts said yesterday.

“The message from the American announcement is that Obama refuses to allow [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to build in Jerusalem,” wrote Akiva Eldar in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“The president also understood that at the end of the freeze, he will find himself without a pact, with a repeated Arab demand to extend the freeze and with another tiring negotiating session with Netanyahu.”

Aides close to Mr Netanyahu insisted yesterday that the Palestinians’ intransigence on a new construction moratorium in the Israeli-occupied West Bank had ruined any chance of direct talks.

Ron Dermer, a top adviser to Mr Netanyahu, told an Israeli radio station that the premier is committed to the peace talks but suggested that Palestinians went too far in their demands for the freeze to include East Jerusalem. “[Netanyahu] doesn’t enter negotiations just to negotiate,” Mr Dermer claimed. “But he has red lines.”

Tzvi Hauser, the Israeli cabinet secretary, said that “the Palestinians need to understand, as the Americans do, that it is unacceptable for either side to set preconditions.”

But Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator, said the US must hold Israel responsible for “the failure of the peace process” and accused Mr Netanyahu of having “succeeded in torpedoing the peace talks”.

Some Palestinian officials indicated that Mr Obama’s reputation  among Palestinians and in the Arab world may suffer a blow.

“We will assess if the US would be able…to achieve success in its upcoming efforts,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, said in an interview with the Voice of Palestine radio station.

“The one who couldn’t make Israel limit its settlement activities in order to conduct serious negotiations, how can he be able to make Israel accept a fair solution? This is the big question now.”

Mr Abbas is due to discuss the latest setback with Arab leaders in Cairo today. He is likely to focus discussions on the remaining options for the Palestinians in their quest for a sovereign state.

Foremost, that appears to include pursuing unilateral action to gain international recognition for such a state. Last month, Mr Erekat said that the Palestinian Authority would advance such a bid at the United Nations Security Council if talks broke down.

This week, the plan gained a boost when Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay announced they would recognise a Palestinian state based on the borders that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr Netanyahu may not emerge unscathed from the failure of the freeze deal.

While he may now win more favour among the right-wing parties that make up the bulk of his ruling coalition, and which have lobbied heavily against a renewed moratorium, he appears to be increasingly losing support among top officials in the Labour party, the only centrist member of his government.

Yesterday, Avishay Braverman, the minister in charge of minority issues, called for his party to exit the coalition should the face-to-face negotiations with the Palestinians not resume.

However, Ehud Barak, the head of the Labour party and Israel’s defence minister, suggested that the freeze-deal collapsed because Washington became distracted by other issues.

Speaking at a meeting of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee, he said: “The contacts stopped because the US had to deal with the WikiLeaks disclosures and its involvement in the confrontation between the two Koreas.”