Plan for Mideast talks gets mixed reception

September 25, 2011

With a Palestinian application for UN membership under consideration by the Security Council, a proposal by international mediators to renew peace negotiations has received guarded Israeli approval and a cool reception from the Palestinians.

The Israeli government and Palestinian leadership are expected to respond to Friday’s proposal by the Quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — in the coming days, but early signals suggest different approaches to the initiative.

The proposal calls for a meeting within a month to agree on the agenda and method of negotiations to reach an accord by the end of next year. It also calls on both sides to produce proposals on the issues of territory and security within three months and make substantial progress within six months, bolstered by an international conference in Moscow.

“If the intention is to enter into serious negotiations without preconditions, I think this is something welcome and something important, and we will go with it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview broadcast Saturday night on Israel’s Channel Ten television. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for an immediate resumption of direct negotiations.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio on Sunday that although he had substantial reservations about the Quartet initiative, “I do think we should accept it, because it has at least one thing that is very positive: starting negotiations without preconditions.”

Lieberman, an outspoken hawk, repeated an earlier threat that if the Palestinians followed through with their efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, it would have “serious consequences,” but he did not elaborate.

Some Israeli cabinet ministers have called for a halt to the transfer of tax funds collected for the Palestinian Authority and annexation of large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, but neither move appears imminent, since the statehood bid is viewed in Israel as having bogged down for now.

The Palestinian statehood application is likely headed for lengthy deliberations at the Security Council and ultimately faces a promised U.S. veto. The Palestinians could then seek to upgrade their status to a non-voting observer state at the General Assembly, where there is no veto and they enjoy broad support.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said by telephone Sunday that the Palestinian leadership would “study the statement” by the Quartet on resuming talks.

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told a welcome rally on his return to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday that in order for negotiations to resume, Israel had to stop settlement construction on land the Palestinians are seeking for a future state.

“We have confirmed to everyone that we want to achieve our rights through peaceful means, through negotiations—but not just any negotiations," Abbas told a cheering crowd. “We will not accept (negotiations) until legitimacy is the foundation, and they cease settlement completely.”

Erekat noted that the Quartet proposal reiterated the obligations of both sides under a 2003 blueprint for talks known as the Roadmap, which requires the Palestinians to halt violence and Israel to freeze settlement activity.

Along with a settlement freeze, the Palestinians are demanding that the baseline for negotiations should be Israel’s boundaries before the 1967 Middle East war, with mutually agreed land swaps that could allow for the absorption of some settlements into Israel in return for Israeli territory of equal size.

Netanyahu has rejected a settlement freeze as an unacceptable precondition. He has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, a step he says would mean renunciation of claims for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to their former homes. The Palestinians reject that demand, on the grounds that it denies the rights of Israeli Arabs who are about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The Quartet proposal sidestepped those sticking points.

At the Ramallah rally, Abbas told Palestinians that “our international, diplomatic . . .journey has begun and we face a long haul.” But he asserted that like the Arab Spring, “there is a Palestinian Spring. A popular, mass spring, resisting peacefully to reach our goal.”

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