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Palestinian leader Abbas meets with Israeli legislators, considers extension of peace talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with Israeli parliament member Hilik Bar in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

In a closed meeting Wednesday with Israeli legislators, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would agree to extend U.S.-brokered peace negotiations beyond the April 29 end date, but only if Israel releases a final batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners and freezes all additional building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Abbas told the visiting parliamentarians that he wanted the Israelis and Americans to bring to the table an actual map detailing their proposals for the final borders of a new Palestinian state. So far, in nine months of talks, no such map has appeared, according to Palestinian negotiators.

Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians flagged late last month when Israel failed to release, as promised, a final group of Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences for murdering and conspiring to murder Israelis. Many of the prisoners, including a handful of Arab-Israelis, were arrested during the first intifada, or uprising, in the early 1990s. 

The talks then slid into the current stalemate after the Palestinians signed 15 treaties and conventions, a breach of their earlier promise not to go to the United Nations while talks were underway. 

Since last month’s breakdown, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has complained of a lack of leadership by Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has threatened to pull back from talks if there is no progress. Senior Obama administration officials have argued that the United States and Kerry have invested enough time in the effort, and it is time to put it aside.

Tensions between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters erupted Wednesday at the plaza Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (Reuters)

Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are scheduled to meet Thursday with U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk in Jerusalem to find a way through the impasse.

Knesset member Hilik Bar, who led the delegation of opposition legislators to Ramallah on Wednesday, said the goal of the visit was to help find a way “back to negotiations” and to see if “there is still a partner for peace on the Palestinian side.”

All five visiting Israeli parliament members said Abbas had displayed a willingness to continue talks beyond the end of this month, as long as Israel addressed his demands.

“We are committed to continuing the talks if Israel releases the prisoners before April 29,” confirmed Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah.

Bar, who heads a caucus in the Israeli parliament to promote a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, told journalists after the meeting that the only viable solution was two states for two people.

“Anyone working against the two-state solution will end up getting one binational state,” warned Bar, which could contradict the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Israel.

Bar said his delegation had faced pressure from inside Israel not to meet with Abbas after an off-duty Israeli policeman had been shot dead Monday night by a Palestinian gunman as the officer drove with his family to a traditional Passover meal near the West Bank city of Hebron.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu released a statement saying that he held the Palestinian Authority responsible for the shooting. He called on Abbas to condemn the killing. While the Palestinian president has yet to make a formal statement on the killing, the visiting Israeli Knesset members said that he had expressed sorrow at the attack.

A meeting between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators scheduled for Wednesday was postponed after the slaying. A spokesman for Abbas told Reuters that the session had been rescheduled to Thursday at the request of the United States.

On Wednesday, the widow of the slain Israeli policeman made an appeal to Netanyahu not to free any more prisoners. Hadas Mizrahi said, ‘There is no reason to release terrorists while more and more families are murdered.”

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.


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