Israeli and Palestinian officials met for the first time in more than a year and agreed to hold further preliminary talks in Jordan as part of an effort to renew formal peace negotiations.
“We do not want to raise our expectations at this stage, but we also do not want to underestimate the importance of the meeting, which gathered the Palestinians and the Israelis face to face,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said at a news conference yesterday to sum up the talks in Amman.
The first get-together between Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho, since the breakdown of talks in September 2010 was arranged by the international group known as the Quartet, with help from Jordan’s King Abdullah.
The odds that Israel and the Palestinians will resolve their conflict this year “are slim to none,” said Aaron David Miller, a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who served for a quarter-century as a Middle East negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
U.S. Election Season
The combination of this year’s U.S. presidential election and the uncertainties surrounding the Arab world’s uprisings and their aftermath in Egypt and elsewhere means no progress toward resolving issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the rights of Palestinian refugees is likely until at least 2013, Miller said in a telephone interview.
Future talks will also be held in Jordan, Judeh said. Israeli and Palestinian officials declined to comment, saying Judeh spoke for all participants.
The two sides will talk again in Jordan on Jan. 6, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a briefing today in Washington.
“That is important, that this dialog is continuing,” Nuland said. “We hope it will give us some momentum.”
To even reach the negotiating stage, Erakat and Molcho would have to resolve a fundamental conflict between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who says peace talks can’t begin until Israel freezes West Bank settlement construction, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says building will continue.
Abbas told reporters earlier yesterday in the West Bank city of Ramallah that he may take “harsh” action if the talks with Israel don’t lead to a settlement freeze by Jan. 26, the date set by the Quartet for the two sides to submit proposals on security arrangements and a final border between them.
“We will discuss and study and decide what to do after the 26th,” Abbas told reporters at a ceremony to open a legal studies center in Ramallah. “So far, I cannot reveal what the measures are because they are not ready yet, but we will take measures that might be harsh.”.
Also 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 European Union. Netanyahu says he won’t negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to respond directly to Abbas’s comment about the prospect of the talks collapsing.
“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.”
Erakat and Molcho met first yesterday with the Quartet representatives and later sat down by themselves, Judeh said. The Quartet is made up of the EU, the U.S, the United Nations and Russia.
Hamas condemned the Palestinian Authority today for its willingness to meet with Israeli officials in Jordan and to present them with the formal proposals on security and borders.
The talks were a “farce, comedy and a waste of time,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said today in a telephone interview from 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 before 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, said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group.
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down more than a year ago after Netanyahu declined to renew a 10-month freeze on building in West Bank settlements.