x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Israel foreign minister calls for Arab citizens to be under Palestinian rule

Avigdor Lieberman's views could complicate peace talks.

JERUSALEM // Arab citizens of Israel should be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty under a future peace deal, the Israeli foreign minister proposed yesterday as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators prepared to meet in Amman for the second time this year.

Avigdor Lieberman said some Arab communities inside Israel would have to be placed under Palestinian rule in exchange for West Bank territory, reiterating his belief that a final agreement would require stripping Arabs of Israeli citizenship.

The ultranationalist leader's comments were bound to complicate efforts in the Jordanian capital to renew Israel-Palestinian peace talks, which broke down 15 months ago because Israel refused to stop building Jewish settlements.

"Any future agreement with the Palestinians must address the matter of Israeli Arabs in the formula of territory and population exchanges," Mr Lieberman told reporters gathered in Israel's parliament. "Any other arrangement is simply collective suicide. This has to be clear and I think it is time to say these things out loud."

It was unclear if his remarks had the backing of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, who dispatched his envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, yesterday to Amman for the second meeting in a week with the Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

The Middle East peace Quartet - the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - has set a deadline of January 26 for the resumption of formal peace talks between the two sides.

The Quartet set the deadline in September, putting forward a four-month timeline for proposals on security and borders with the hope of also forestalling a bid by the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, to win statehood recognition at the United Nations.

Mr Lieberman accused Palestinian leaders of entering the Amman meetings in bad faith, saying their intention was ultimately to "carry on with talks in Jordan until January 26, and immediately afterward to renew their offensive at the UN to achieve recognition".

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The Hamas leadership, at a crossroads due to the Arab Spring, have been travelling extensively in the Middle East in order to reassess the group's strategic alliances. Hugh Naylor reports from Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders have expressed little hope in the Amman talks, even though Mr Erekat reportedly submitted to Mr Molcho detailed proposals on borders and security during the first meeting last week.

An official in the West Bank's dominant Fatah faction, which is chaired by Mr Abbas, confirmed a plan to increase diplomatic efforts at the UN if the Jordan talks fail.

"We're all under the impression that these meetings are no more than a photo op," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The meetings, nevertheless, have exacerbated tensions between Fatah and the Gaza Strip's rulers, Hamas.

Fatah's Central Committee announced on Sunday that it would re-evaluate its reconciliation accord with Hamas, signed in May, after a four-member delegation of Fatah officials was denied entry into Gaza on Friday.

The incident occurred as Nabil Shaath, a Fatah Central Committee member, was on a week-long tour of the coastal enclave to discuss the accord with Hamas leaders.

Calling the move "unprofessional and inappropriate", Fatah blamed the Hamas interior ministry in Gaza and warned the incident could "jeopardise" efforts to end their division, according to a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Hamas, which opposes peace talks with Israel, responded with a statement warning that if Fatah "made a decision to backtrack from reconciliation in favour of returning to negotiation[s] with the Zionist enemy, they should bear full responsibility..."

Mr Shaath, who returned from Gaza on Sunday, expressed concern that Friday's incident was indicative of widening divisions in Hamas over Palestinian reconciliation.

He said some Hamas officials "were very apologetic" to him and were seemingly caught off guard by news that the Fatah delegation had been denied entry into Gaza.

"The people in charge of security there really intended this to be a shenanigan, an obstacle, to incite Fatah," he said.

Founding stalwarts in Hamas, such as Mahmoud Zahar, have publicly chafed against the pact's primary proponent, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's Damascus-based leader.

Mr Meshaal's increasingly conciliatory stance has included expressions of support for non-violent resistance and a two-state solution, contradicting a proclamation in the group's founding charter to wipe Israel off the map.

Hints of this discord have been on display during a regional tour by Hamas's prime minister, Ismail Haniya, aimed at canvassing support from the upheaval of the Arab Spring. In addressing thousands of Islamist supporters in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on Sunday, he was accused of inciting violence and anti-Semitism by leaders of the country's small Jewish community, which numbers fewer than 2,000 people.

Some in the crowd reportedly stomped on a Star of David, a Jewish symbol emblazoned on Israel's flag, as Mr Haniya vowed that Hamas "will not lay down our arms" against Israel.

"We promise you that we will not cede a single part of Palestine. We will not cede Jerusalem," he said, as crowds were heard chanting "Death to Israel" and "Kill the Jews, it is our duty".

hnaylor@thenational.ae


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* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse