Palestinians open new peace talks with a threat
Palestinian and Israeli peace talks began with a 'brainstorming session' in Jordan today, the first face-to-face meetings in more than a year.
| Amman, Jordan
The chief Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators on Tuesday were holding their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year, searching for a formula to restart long-stalled negotiations.
With prospects for a breakthrough appearing dim, the Palestinian president threatened to take "new measures" against Israel at the end of the month. Nonetheless, Tuesday's meeting, in the presence of international diplomats, marked the strongest chance in months for reviving talks.
Jordan's Foreign Ministry said Israel's Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian envoy Saeb Erekat met with envoys from the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Afterward, the two men met in the presence of their Jordanian host, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, to exchange positions on key issues of security and borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
A diplomat who attended the larger meeting said the talks were "serious."
"It was a brainstorming session in which both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, showed eagerness to restart peace negotiations," the diplomat said. He declined to elaborate and insisted on anonymity, saying a public comment could adversely affect the sensitive meeting.
The Quartet has been working for months to restart peace talks. The international group hopes to broker a final peace agreement by the end of the year.
For now, simply restarting a peace process would mark a significant achievement. Negotiations broke down in September 2010 after the expiration of an Israeli settlement slowdown.
The Palestinians have refused to return to the table while Israel builds settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians hope to make part of a future state. They also want Israel to commit to returning to its pre-1967 war lines as the basis for final borders.
The international community has largely backed the Palestinian positions on settlements and borders, but stopped short of making them conditions for restarting talks.
Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that if Israel accepts his conditions, "we will go to negotiations." He said the Palestinians have set a Jan. 26 deadline for talks to resume. "After that date, we will take new measures. These measures might be hard," he said.
Abbas said no decision has been made yet. Palestinian officials have said they are considering resuming their push for U.N. membership as well as ways to isolate Israel at the United Nations, such as a new resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israeli officials declined comment while the meeting was under way. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected the Palestinian demands about settlement construction, saying talks should begin immediately without preconditions.
It was not known whether either envoy would present a new formula that might be able to bridge the divide.
In September, the Quartet set forth a four-month target for the sides to present proposals on the key issues of future borders and security arrangements. The Palestinians believe the timeline expires on Jan. 26. Israel says the clock doesn't start ticking until negotiations are under way.
The meeting comes as Abbas is trying to reconcile with the militant Hamas group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007. Israel has warned it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, called on Abbas to call off Tuesday's meeting.
Jordan's King Abdullah II has implored Israel and Palestinians to resume peace talks. Abdullah is worried about the growing influence of Islamic groups in the Middle East and fears that continued deadlock in peace efforts could strengthen radicals.
Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, 13 Jordanian opposition groups comprising Muslim fundamentalists and leftist groups called for a demonstration against the talks. The groups said the Palestinians must instead carry out a third uprising or armed resistance against Israel.
Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.
(Federman reported from Jerusalem.)