x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Washington to pull in Arab League for Israel peace talks

Barack Obama's visit to the West Bank, Israel and Jordan last week inspired little hope among Palestinians for a resumption of talks. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // The Obama administration will seek to enlist the help of Arab states in restarting negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, a Palestinian official said yesterday.

Yasser Abed-Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said a delegation from the Arab League would visit Washington as part of the effort. He did not specify dates.

Mr Obama's visit to the West Bank, Israel and Jordan last week inspired little hope among Palestinians for a resumption of talks, which broke off in 2010 over Israel's refusal to stop constructing housing for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The renewed involvement of Arab countries in a push for talks, however, could bolster Palestinian confidence over rejoining a Washington-sponsored peace process they resent as biased in favour of Israel.

"US efforts will increase in coming weeks and will include other Arab parties, such as Jordan and Egypt," Mr Abed-Rabbo said yesterday.

Arab leaders were expected to discuss the peace process at an Arab League summit starting today in Doha.

At the 2002 summit of Arab heads of state in Beirut, the League adopted the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-inspired peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The initiative offered full normalisation of relations with Israel. In exchange, Israel was required to withdraw from all occupied territories, including the Golan Heights, to recognise Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a "just solution" for the Palestinian refugees.

Reiterating a long-standing Palestinian demand on Sunday, Saeb Erekat, the chief peace negotiator, ruled out joining Israel at the negotiating table without a total freeze on settlement activity.

During a press conference last week in Ramallah with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama said a cessation of Israeli housing in the West Bank should not be a prerequisite for the resumption of talks.

Mr Abed-Rabbo criticised that position yesterday, saying that without a freeze on settlement building, Palestinians feared getting bogged down in a "bargaining process over details" that would offer Israel cover for expanding settlements on territories wanted for a Palestinian state.

"For us, the important thing is the substance, such as the full settlement freeze and the recognition of the 1967 borders," Mr Abed-Rabbo said, referring to Israel's borders that prevailed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr Obama has designated his secretary of state, John Kerry, to find some common ground between Israelis and Palestinians that could serve as a basis for restarting talks.

After meeting separately with Mr Abbas and Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday, Mr Kerry described the discussions as "useful".

Mr Netanyahu's office yesterday announced that Israel would resume handing over tax revenues collected on behalf of Palestinians, an issue that Mr Kerry has been pushing for since taking office last month.

Israel stopped the monthly payments of about US$100 million (Dh367m) in December as punishment for Palestinians obtaining upgraded observer status at the United Nations.

Some Palestinians are pessimistic about Arab state involvement in US peacemaking efforts. "Are any of these countries in a position to stop Israeli colonisation? I certainly don't think so," said one PLO official, citing Egypt's domestic troubles and Jordan's firm ties with Washington.

An aide to Mr Abbas said the Palestinian leader would wait to hear out the Obama administration's proposals for resuming talks. But doubts persisted over whether the US president would want to spend the political capital necessary to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction.

"He has plenty of domestic issues on his plate, so we're not hopeful," the aide said.

He would not comment on whether Mr Abbas had plans to bring war-crimes allegations against Israel to the International Criminal Court, which Mr Abed-Rabbo threatened in January.