x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Israel minister welcomes Jordan meeting with Palestinians

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators headed to Jordan yesterday for their first face-to-face meeting in nearly 16 months, although both sides stressed it did not mark a renewal of talks.

JERUSALEM // Israeli and Palestinian negotiators headed to Jordan yesterday for their first face-to-face meeting in nearly 16 months, although both sides stressed it did not mark a renewal of talks.

Israel's chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erakat, were due to sit down together today on the shores of the Dead Sea.

They were invited by the Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh.

Tony Blair, the Quartet on the Middle East envoy, was also to attend the session, along with other officials of the diplomatic grouping, which represents the European Union, Russia, the UN and the US.

"This is a positive development," said Dan Meridor, an Israeli cabinet minister. "It is the first time in a long while that the Palestinians have been prepared to come and talk to us directly, without preconditions."

Mr Meridor, who holds the intelligence portfolio and is the deputy prime minister, said the meeting did not constitute a return to direct talks, but he hoped it would be a springboard that would "allow the Palestinians to return to negotiations".

Mr Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio. "This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations," he said.

In Ramallah, Mr Erakat urged Israel not to waste the rare opportunity of a face-to-face meeting.

"This is a valuable opportunity for peace and Israel shouldn't waste it and once again be the reason for the failure of efforts by the international community, by the Quartet and by Jordan, to resume the negotiations," he said.

Should today's meeting end without progress, a committee of officials from the Palestinian leadership would look into the available options and "present its recommendations to President [Mahmoud] Abbas within the next few days," he said. "If the Israeli premier [Benjamin Netanyahu] thinks that by continuing to build settlements and destroying any prospect of implementing the two-state solution, that he can stop our efforts, then he is wrong."

News that the two sides would meet sparked anger among Gaza's Hamas rulers, who are trying to push through a reconciliation deal with Mr Abbas's Fatah movement.

"We demand a boycott of this meeting," said a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri. "Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure."

The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also denounced the move as a "fatal error" that would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game.

"The occupation and the Quartet are the only beneficiaries from the Amman meeting that is, in fact, a negotiations meeting that drains the Palestinian national account," the group said.

Mr Meridor said the initiative to get the two sides talking after a hiatus of nearly 16 months had come from Jordan, in what he described as a "positive change". "Jordan is a neighbour and we have important relations with it ... its involvement in any solution to the Palestinian problem is" crucial, he said.