x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Palestinians wary over new deal on peace talks

Without resolution of key demands, officials hold out little hope for preliminary discussions in Washington this week.

A photograph released by the Palestinian Authority shows John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas heading to a meeting in Ramallah on Friday. Thaer Ganaim / EPA
A photograph released by the Palestinian Authority shows John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas heading to a meeting in Ramallah on Friday. Thaer Ganaim / EPA

RAMALLAH //Senior Palestinian officials expressed wariness yesterday at the prospect of renewed peace talks with Israel, which they said would not succeed without a freeze on Jewish settlement construction and acceptance of that borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced in Jordan late on Friday that he had established a basis for new talks. He said Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would meet in Washington this week to pave the way for a resumption of direct negotiations.

In response, the Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz said that as a gesture Israel would release a limited number of the estimated 4,713 Palestinians in Israeli jails, including what he called "heavyweights".

Mr Kerry's statement on Friday capped months of intense diplomacy during which he visited the region six times and won Arab League support for a new round of talks, which broke down in 2010 over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders sought yesterday to rein in expectations for any imminent breakthrough on so-called final status issues - the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, as well as the borders and settlements.

A senior aide to the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinian conditions for a resumption of talks - a settlement freeze and acceptance of pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations - had not been met and remained to be resolved during this week's talks in Washington.

"This was not a decision to go to talks - this was a decision to form a basis for talks," the aide said.

Other Palestinian officials emphasised that Mr Abbas had a limited mandate to enter talks.

"Look, Abbas was able to agree to what Kerry wanted because he did not agree to formal negotiations, which would have required a decision from the leadership," said an official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The official also said that Mr Abbas's agreement to send a Palestinian representative to the Washington talks has put the Palestinians in a precarious position.

"What he did has not made people happy at all, and it is setting us up to be demonised if Kerry's efforts fail," the official said.

For the Palestinians, any talks with the Israelis pose the risk of coming away from the table empty-handed and, worse, being blamed internationally for their failure.

Moreover, the leadership in Ramallah has been criticised by other Palestinians in the past for offering concessions to the Israelis during negotiations that were not reflected in their public statements.

Hamas took the lead yesterday in publicly rebuking the Palestinian president, calling the talks part of Mr Abbas's "march of conceding the rights" of Palestinians. The Islamist movement, which has long opposed peace talks, officially calls for Israel's destruction.

Some factions within the PLO, which Mr Abbas heads, also criticised the decision to go to Washington. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine called it "political suicide".

An official close to Mr Abbas was taken aback by the Palestinian president's decision to accept Mr Kerry's proposal after a meeting with the US secretary of state in Ramallah on Friday night.

"I think most people in the meeting were a bit surprised and taken aback because they are not in favour of this, and they know that public opinion is certainly not in favour of this," the official said.