x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Abbas less upbeat than Kerry over Mideast peace deal

Palestinians distance themselves from the claims of progress expressed by US secretary of state over his dogged attempts to revive the Middle East peace process. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // Palestinians yesterday distanced themselves from the claims of progress expressed by John Kerry over his dogged attempts to revive the Middle East peace process.

The US secretary of state yesterday left Israel after four days in the region spent shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, attempting to persuade them to return to the negotiating table.

Just before flying to Asia, Mr Kerry repeatedly said that "progress" had been made during multiple, marathon discussions held with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

"I'm pleased to tell you that we have made real progress on this trip. And I believe that with a little more work, the start of final status negotiations could be within reach," he said just before taking off from Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport.

While providing no details, he said he had "narrowed" the gaps between both sides.

After meeting Mr Abbas in Ramallah yesterday, he also described the encounter as a "very positive discussion, very important discussions".

But aides to Mr Abbas were considerably less upbeat than Mr Kerry, who has visited the region five times this year, each with the intention of restarting peace talks that have been dormant for almost three years.

One aide, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Kerry's meeting with Mr Abbas was positive "but there has been no breakthrough so far and there is still a gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions".

Mr Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, did not elaborate on the details of those gaps.

Mr Abbas has showed no signs of compromising on his core demand for returning to negotiations - that is, a complete halt to construction on Jewish settler homes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The last round of talks, in 2010, fell apart because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop expanding settlements, which continue to grow and now house some half a million people on land wanted for a Palestinian state.

The Israeli leader, too, lacked the optimism conveyed by Mr Kerry. In Jerusalem, he held an hours-long discussion with the US diplomat on Saturday night that ran into the early hours of yesterday morning. Mr Netanyahu yesterday clung to his mantra of engaging in peace talks "without preconditions" - something which Palestinians regard as a precondition in itself.

"We are not putting up any impediments on the resumption of the permanent talks and a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians," Mr Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would "not compromise on security and there will be no agreement that will endanger Israelis' security".

A report in a Jordanian newspaper on Saturday said Mr Kerry planned to announce a summit in Amman - with the backing of Jordan's King Abdullah II - to persuade Israelis and Palestinian back to negotiations.

That announcement did not happen, and a senior Palestinian official familiar with Mr Kerry's meeting with Mr Abbas on Saturday said "there was really nothing serious" discussed between them.

"The secretary is trying hard but the Israelis aren't giving him anything," said the official.

Mr Kerry has offered both sides serious incentives to restart peace negotiations, and all appear to have been rejected.

Mr Netanyahu snubbed a refreshed offer of normal diplomatic relations with the Arab League, which Mr Kerry had convinced in May to repackage its 2002 peace initiative with added sweeteners. In return for Israel withrawing from the occupied Palestinian territories and accepting a Palestinian state, the Arab states would consider their conflict with Israel over and sign a peace agreement.

Israel has never formally responded to 22-member organisation's 11-year-old offer.

Nor did Mr Abbas respond with enthusiasm to a US$4 billion (Dh14.68bn) development plan that Mr Kerry announced in May to help the Palestinian territories, which suffer from high unemployment and the vagaries of Israeli occupation.

In private, Palestinian leaders say they fear being labelled as the spoiler if Mr Kerry's peacemaking fails.

Though doubtful such efforts will produce results with Mr Netanyahu's government, which decisively supports the occupation, Palestinian policy appears to be one of neither accepting nor refusing the US leader's offers.


* Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press

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