Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meet in Jordan for the first time in more than a year today to determine whether there is hope of reviving the Middle East peace process.
The meeting in Amman between Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinian representative, Saeb Erakat, was put together by members of the so-called 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 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamic Hamas movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
Abbas says 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.
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 it won’t negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if it includes Hamas, unless the Islamic movement first renounces violence, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and pledges to abide by prior agreements.
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 a bid to restart the peace talks, the Quartet has asked Israel and the Palestinians to submit proposals for security arrangements and the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state by Jan. 26. Israel said it would present such proposals only in the context of actual negotiations, while the Palestinians have given the Quartet their answers.
Reason for Optimism
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said he saw reason for optimism in the fact that the Palestinians were willing to show up today.
“This is the first time in a long time that the Palestinians are prepared to speak with us directly,” Meridor told Army Radio yesterday. “If they want to reach an agreement, now is the time.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that while his government wouldn’t agree to any conditions to talks, that “did not exclude the right of each side to make demands and propose confidence-building measures.”
Such steps though should be discussed “in the negotiating room at the table,” Barak told Army Radio yesterday.
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.