New pre-peace talks will end if settlement building does not stop
By Jonathan Ferziger, Bloomberg news
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he may take “harsh measures” if talks with Israel starting today in Jordan do not lead to a halt in West Bank settlement construction by Jan. 26.
The comment to reporters in Ramallah came hours before chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho, went to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry in Amman for their first meeting in more than a year. The international group known as the Quartet has asked both Israel and the Palestinians to present proposals on setting final borders between them by that date.
“We will discuss and study and decide what to do after the 26th,” Abbas told reporters after a ceremony to open a legal studies center in Ramallah, adding that he hopes the talks succeed. “So far I cannot reveal what the measures are because they are not ready yet, but we will take measures that might be harsh,” he said.
Abbas has said he won’t return to peace talks, which broke down in September 2010, unless Israel freezes all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a condition Netanyahu rejects. The Amman meeting has been presented by both sides as a preliminary step to resuming formal talks, not a new round in itself.
If Israel does halt settlement construction, “we will immediately go back to the negotiations,” Abbas said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to respond directly to Abbas’s comment.
“It is our sincere hope that we will see the beginning of a process of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians and that we move toward a peace deal,” Regev said. “There is no alternative that can bring peace.”
The meeting between Erakat and Molcho was put together by the Quartet, which comprises the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. King Abdullah of Jordan is pushing for a breakthrough, stepping into a role played previously by Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.
Working against the resumption of peace talks is a rapprochement between Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamic Hamas movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU. Netanyahu says he won’t negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
“There is a lot of negative baggage between the two sides, so I wouldn’t be very optimistic,” said Benadetta Berti, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Hamas condemned the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to meet with Israeli officials in Jordan.
“These meetings are a repetition of a track that has failed over the past years,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said yesterday in an e-mailed statement to reporters in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas ousted forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah faction from Gaza in 2007 to gain full control of the Palestinian enclave after winning parliamentary elections the year before. Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, are holding reconciliation talks in an effort to form a unity government ahead of Palestinian elections.
Israel has said Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist and pledge to abide by prior agreements before it can join any talks.
While the Israeli and Palestinian officials meet in Jordan, the second Arab nation after Egypt to make peace with the Jewish state, Gaza’s top Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has been on a regional tour that includes Turkey and Iran, Abu Zuhri said.
Erakat told reporters in Ramallah yesterday to limit their expectations about the meeting with Molcho, saying it could not be described as a formal negotiating session.
He urged Israel to “seize this opportunity to stop all settlement construction, accept the two-state solution on the 1967 border, and release Palestinian prisoners” to provide the right environment for “meaningful and credible talks.”
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down more than year ago after Netanyahu declined to renew a 10-month freeze on building in West Bank settlements that Abbas says is necessary before negotiations to resume.
In announcing the meeting, Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Al-Kayed said Jan. 1 that King Abdullah led an “intensive effort” to bring the two sides together, including a visit to the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, and a meeting at his palace with Israeli President Shimon Peres.