Abbas aide urges Quartet to press for Israeli settlement halt
By Joel Greenberg,
RAMALLAH, West Bank — A senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanded Saturday that international mediators insist on a halt to Israeli settlement construction, after their initiative to restart peace talks was jolted this week by Israel’s decision to advance building plans on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem.
Nabil Shaath characterized the response to Israel’s move by the mediating group known as the Quartet as a slap on the wrist and said that more robust action was needed to ensure that negotiations resume with ground rules that include a halt to Israeli construction on land the Palestinians seek for a future state.
The proposal by the Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — to resume peace talks in the coming weeks has run into early trouble over the settlement question. Issued last month as the Palestinians applied for membership in the United Nations, the proposal sets out a timetable for talks on borders and security with the goal of reaching an overall agreement by the end of 2012, but it sidesteps several crucial issues in dispute.
In particular, the initiative does not explicitly address the main sticking point that led to the collapse of talks a year ago: continued Israeli settlement expansion. The Palestinians assert that they will not resume negotiations unless the building stops, a demand rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for an immediate resumption of talks without preconditions.
The dispute was aggravated Tuesday when Israel advanced plans to build 1,100 homes in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem, angering the Palestinians and drawing international condemnation, including a rebuke from Washington.
Shaath said that a “more forceful” international response was needed, setting the terms for talks.
“The Quartet must say right here and now what it understands the terms of reference to be, and having done that, we want Mr. Netanyahu to say, yes, he accepts,” Shaath told a group of foreign reporters. “Mr. Netanyahu calls the rules preconditions, but without the rules you cannot negotiate anything.”
Shaath added that negotiating the competing interpretations of the Quartet’s terms for talks would “take the next 20 years.”
“This is the folly that we called the peace process,” he added, referring to peace efforts over the past two decades. “We need that referee holding that red card very clearly in his hand when any of the two parties violates” the guidelines for negotiations.
The Quartet proposal calls on the Israelis and Palestinians “to refrain from provocative actions” and cites their obligations under the 2003 peace blueprint known as the road map, which calls for an Israeli settlement freeze and a cessation of violence by the Palestinians. The proposal also refers to President Obama’s vision of a peace deal, outlined in a speech in May, which calls for a solution based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with agreed land swaps.
Israel has yet to respond formally to the Quartet proposal, but Netanyahu has said that if it provides for talks without preconditions Israel would go along with it. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that while he had reservations about the initiative, Israel should agree to it after Obama’s recent U.N. speech opposing the Palestinian membership bid and Washington’s help when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was stormed by protesters last month.