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Sceptics abound on nine-month Mideast peace deadline

Both sides say nine months is not long enough to reach agreement on all the issues, but US secretary of state John Kerry had hopes for sense of urgency. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

Palestinian youths trying to reach Jerusalem climb over the controversial Israeli barrier in the West Bank village of Al Ram near Ramallah earlier this week.
Palestinian youths trying to reach Jerusalem climb over the controversial Israeli barrier in the West Bank village of Al Ram near Ramallah earlier this week.

RAMALLAH // With the unexpected resumption of face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, the scepticism that has pervaded the Middle East peace process now has a new target: the nine-month deadline for the completion of a final-status deal.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, on Tuesday set that deadline when he announced the resumption of formal peace talks, which are an attempt to resolve the issues that have hampered intermittent negotiations over the past two decades.

Uri Savir, Israel's chief negotiator of the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, said it would be difficult to come to an agreement in nine months on all the major issues, which are refugees, Jerusalem, borders and security.

But he said putting limits on the duration of the talks was necessary to push both sides to work with a sense of urgency. "It's absolutely critical that such a deadline is set because you would waste endless time without it," Mr Savir said yesterday.

A Palestinian official expressed concern about the nine-month limit on talks, because it was made without consulting them first. "We didn't have a say in that decision; he just made it," said the official.

But the official was more concerned with how Washington's close ties with Israel would affect the talks.

During previous rounds of talks, US mediators have come under scrutiny for siding too closely with the Israelis.

Such criticism included when the United States and Israel ganged up on the Palestinians during the two stormy weeks of negotiations it h§osted at Camp David in 2000 between Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak.

Feeling pressured by the Israeli leader and then US president Bill Clinton to sign an agreement, the late Palestinian leader rejected the proposal.

The breakdown of those talks was one of the triggers of the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which led to thousands of Israeli and Palestinian casualties.

Ghassan Khatib, who was a member of the Palestinian delegation in peace talks held between 1991 and 1993 in Madrid, Spain and Washington DC, said Mr Kerry's nine-month deadline seemed adequate to reach a peace agreement.

He said the role of the US over that period would be crucial.

"If the administration repeated the same mistakes of bringing parties to table and then leaving them alone, which has been the strategy all along, it wouldn't matter if these talks were nine months or nine years," he said.

Mr Khatib said neither side - especially Israel, which is vastly more powerful than the Palestinians - would budge from their positions without US pressure.

Over the past two decades, Palestinians have learnt to demand more stringent parameters before entering talks with Israel. That partly was a result of regret from signing up to the Oslo agreement of 1993, which set a five-year deadline for concluding a peace agreement.

Palestinians say that Israel used that time to expand its settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, areas that along with the Gaza Strip are wanted for a Palestinian state. Israel's settler population nearly tripled after 1993, to over 500,000.

In general, said Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the Oslo accords, the Palestinians demand far shorter time frames for talks than the Israelis because they fear being exploited.

"But there is no magic number when it comes to setting a time," he said.

Despite the right-wing, pro-settler configuration of the Israeli government under the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Beilin also expressed some hope for Mr Kerry's peace talks.

Most of the parameters for a final agreement have already been thrashed out during peace negotiations that happened before the talks Mr Kerry had restarted, he said. And the people who decided those parameters were represented in the Washington talks this week, including Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni.

In any case, few expect an accord to be reached until the 11th hour.

"When you have a deadline, you don't conclude things in an early fashion," Mr Beilin said.

"It's like a kid procrastinating before a test. If it's on Thursday, he crams in all of his studying on Wednesday night."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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