Can desire for US approval top Israeli-Palestinian divide?

Some say that Israel and the Palestinians are only joining the talks because they don't want to be labeled as obstacles to peace by the US.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File
Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city, May 8. On Sunday Israel's cabinet set the stage for talks to resume by deciding to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in installments.

Israelis and Palestinians are sparring over the very premise for their impending peace negotiations as envoys from each side head into talks in Washington that have been trumpeted as the revival of diplomacy after three years of stalemate.

While the US remains mum on the negotiating terms, the two parties are sparring over the central question of whether the talks are based on Israel's 1967 borders or not. The argument comes amid widespread skepticism on both sides that the US-brokered diplomacy will lead to a breakthrough to end more than a century of conflict.

"They have zero chances of reaching an end of conflict, end of claims agreement," says Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli analyst who is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. ''The positions are too far apart on narrative issues like the future of holy places and the right of return'' of Palestinians who fled or were expelled at Israel's establishment in 1948.

By saying yes to the American invitation to negotiate, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are avoiding the possibility of being cast as rejectionists by Secretary of State John Kerry, who made six visits to the region in his effort to bring the two sides to an agreement to talk. It is possible that this same desire not to be blamed will keep the two sides engaged for the near future.

There are also more optimistic voices in the chorus. ''I travel with a feeling of deep responsibility and great hope,'' Israeli chief negotiator, former foreign minister, and current justice minister Tzipi Livni said before heading to Washington. ''There is a chance for the two sides to pave a way to bring about the solution of the conflict.''

On Sunday Israel's cabinet set the stage for talks to resume by deciding to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in installments.

Mr. Alpher says the US should stop striving for a sweeping agreement covering all of the final status issues left open by the 1993 Oslo Accords – security, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements – and the negotiations should focus instead only on the first two of those issues which, while still thorny, have a better chance of resolution: borders and security.

But even on borders, the gap between the two parties looks daunting. Mr. Abbas has long demanded that Israel withdraw from all of the occupied West Bank, with some land swaps to enable some of the most populous Israeli settlements there to remain in Israeli hands. He and Mr. Kerry recently received Arab League endorsement for this stance.

In practice, accepting this would require Mr. Netanyahu to break with hard-right coalition partners and for Israel to evacuate many of the more than 300,000 settlers it has moved into the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) since 1967.

Abdullah Abdullah, a Palestinian legislator who is deputy commissioner for international relations of Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement, insists that the US invitation for today's talks spells out clearly that the negotiations are to be based upon the border between Israel and the West Bank that existed before the 1967 war, with land swaps.

"This is in writing and the Israelis can't overjump it. The US is mediating the talks so it sets the rules and these are the terms of reference. If the Israelis don't like that, they shouldn't be coming."

But a senior Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak about the contacts surrounding the resumption of negotiations, says Israel rules out returning to the 1967 borders with land swaps. ''We did not agree to that. Israel rejected the Palestinian demand for this as a precondition for talks."

A spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv declined to reveal what the terms of reference are or say what the US stance is.

"These are closed, private discussions,'' he told The Christian Science Monitor.

The meeting in Washington, scheduled to last only two days, is being billed as a procedural session to set the timetable and logistics for further negotiations, which will take place in the region. The talks are slated to last no more than nine months.

But Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority, says that the negotiations will in practice continue for some time, albeit without a peace deal.

"Endless negotiation is good for the Americans. They can point to success in bringing the sides to the table and keeping them there. Netanyahu can avoid US pressure and shows he's engaged in the peace process. Abbas can continue to be fed with money, prisoner releases and other things and maintain the survival of the PA.''

But Mr. Khatib does not believe the US will put enough pressure on Israel to force the substantial concessions necessary to enable the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

In the view of Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Abbas may be able to keep negotiating for a while without results because he has "no opposition." Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is at a weak point after the loss of its ally, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its estrangement from Syria and Iran, he noted.

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