x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Quartet deadline on Israel-Palestinian peace talks expires

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will consult with Arab League on whether to continue.

TEL AVIV // A three-month deadline for Israelis and Palestinians to advance peace talks expired yesterday but low-level negotiations are expected to continue.

Despite Palestinian remarks this week that the talks had failed, the European Union's foreign policy chief says the dialogue is not at a dead end.

"I don't think there's an impasse," Catherine Ashton said after talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. "President Abbas is thinking carefully about how to move forward."

An Israeli official said Israel had in recent days presented the outlines of its stances on territory and security.

"The Palestinians have asked for further clarifications, as we have of them on issues they've presented. It is therefore very important that we continue the direct face-to-face discussions on these and other issues," the official said.

Mr Abbas will consult with the Arab League on February 4 in Cairo on whether to continue the talks.

While frustrated with the lack of progress, the Palestinian president is under pressure to extend the talks, which have been taking place in Jordan.

Analysts said the struggle to keep the talks alive may spur the European Union, which appears to be spearheading the international community's mediation efforts, to sharply raise pressure on Israel to curb its settlement activities in a bid to reignite negotiations.

Yaron Ezrahi, a veteran Israeli political analyst, said the European Union's move this week to toughen sanctions on Iran in response to Tehran's nuclear programme would force the bloc to act as well against Israel's settlement drive, to avoid appearing one-sided.

"The EU sanctions against Iran would not appear sensible from the point of view of the Arab world if they don't consider unprecedented sanctions on Netanyahu and his total rejection of anything other than helping settlements," Mr Ezrahi said.

Indeed, Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been a key dispute with the Palestinians and has largely contributed to the stalemate in the peace process.

The Middle East Quartet - made up of the US, EU, United Nations and Russia - announced a three-month deadline last October for the Israelis and Palestinians to bring forward proposals on issues tied to security and territory. The Quartet's plan envisaged a peace deal by the end of this year.

This week, top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators completed their fifth round of talks within a period of three weeks in Amman. Mr Abbas's talks with the Arab League, analysts say, could include advancing a UN membership bid and moving ahead with reconciliation talks with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and rivals Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement. Israel opposes both initiatives.

Israeli analysts say little progress is expected in the peace talks unless aggressive pressure is applied on Mr Netanyahu, who heads a predominantly hard-line, pro-settler government. Mr Netanyahu may be especially receptive to the demands of his supporters on the right, mainly the settlers, as he heads towards a leadership primary in his Likud party on Tuesday.

The primary, called by the prime minister last month, raises the possibility of an early general election next year, which polls indicate Mr Netanyahu's party would win.

"Netanyahu is the most extreme right-wing leader in Israel's history and he only wants to be the prime minister of the settlements and not of the entire state of Israel," Mr Ezrahi said. "As long as he is preparing for elections, he will stick to his refusenik approach about everything that has to do with the peace process."

Some Palestinian analysts expressed pessimism about the EU or US acting to exert pressure on Israel, because they are more concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Abdul Sattar Kassem, a political science professor at An-Najah National University, said the recent negotiations in Amman were meant to serve as an "excuse" for Gulf countries to team up with Israel and the US against Iran's nuclear programme, which they all view as a major threat.

"The talks were not meant to discuss the basic national rights of the Palestinians. They were meant to solidify the Arab-American-Israeli alliance against Iran, Hizbollah and Syria," Mr Sattar Kassem said.

The Amman meetings were aimed at creating an impression among the Arab public that Israel and the US were "serious about giving the Palestinians something", thereby allowing Arab regimes to justify their cooperation with Israel on Iran, he said.

Mr Sattar Kassem and other Palestinian analysts have said Mr Abbas is now unlikely to take steps that would anger Israel or the US because the financially strapped Palestinian Authority depends on donations from the US, EU and Arab world to survive. The West Bank government also receives badly needed tax revenue transfers from Israel every month.

"Those who do not feed themselves cannot decide for themselves," he said. "Unless we decide to free ourselves from money received from the US and its allies, we won't adopt policies that contradict their interests."