Hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that he needed to “evaluate very carefully” his ongoing engagement in peace efforts, and that the US was “not going to sit there indefinitely,” Palestinian Authority officials insisted Friday night that they had not abandoned the negotiating table, and Israeli officials said peace talks could resume if the PA rescinded its applications to join 15 UN and other international treaties. But officials on both sides sounded deeply pessimistic about the chances of saving the peace process, and each blamed the other for the rupture.
“If the Palestinians rescind [the applications signed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday], then we can resume [negotiations],” Israel’s Channel 2 news quoted Israeli officials as saying.
Top Abbas adviser Jibril Rajoub, for his part, said, “We have not abandoned the negotiating table… We are committed to nine months of talks… until the end of April.” And Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf claimed that “if our heroes are freed” in the prisoner release that was supposed to have gone ahead last week, then previous Israeli-Palestinian understandings would be “intact.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed Friday: “We signed 15 (conventions), but there are still 48 treaties, conventions and agencies that we have not signed yet.” He told journalists: “If the Israelis release the 30 prisoners, we are committed not to join these agencies, treaties and conventions, but if they (the Israelis) don’t, we have a free hand.”
“We don’t have anything to lose,” Erekat said, but suggested there’s still a chance to salvage the negotiations. “The focus now is, really, we want to avoid the crash (of the talks), we don’t want to undermine the American efforts,” he said.
But PA officials dismissed the idea of Abbas rescinding the treaty applications. Indeed, the PA leader has been quoted earlier this week as saying, “I would rather become a martyr” than withdraw them.
On the Israeli side, negotiators Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, told US special envoy Martin Indyk on Friday that they considered the PA’s resort to UN bodies a “major breach” of the peace process.
While the PA says Israel breached its commitments by failing to free the fourth and final group of 26 longterm terrorist convicts last weekend, Israeli officials say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was on the verge of approving a more far-reaching prisoner deal on Tuesday night — which would also have provided for the US to release American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard — when Abbas shocked Netanyahu by signing the treaty applications on live TV.
Indyk on Friday held separate contacts with the Israeli and the Palestinian negotiators, having failed to broker any progress during a bitter meeting with the sides that ran from late Wednesday into the early hours of Thursday morning.
Israeli and Palestinian news reports Friday described the prospects of salvaging the Pollard-for-prisoners deal as “very weak.” As for any meaningful return to negotiations, Israeli officials noted that there had actually been no substantive direct contacts between the sides since November.
Interviewed on Channel 2 on Friday night, Rajoub was asked to cite a single concession the PA had made in its positions on the core issues of a permanent peace agreement since talks began last July, and twice he ducked the question. Instead, he said that while the Palestinians want to “end the conflict” and to see Israel “end the occupation,” Netanyahu “doesn’t want to solve the conflict.” While the talks had been in progress, he charged, Israel had built 11,000 new homes on land sought by the Palestinians for their state.
Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the collapse of the talks, but Livni (Hatnua) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), the more dovish members of his coalition, have both blamed the Palestinians for the breach — positions that indicate the Israeli government will not fall apart if this week’s crisis marks the end of the peace process.
Lapid, one of the most outspoken proponents of negotiations with the Palestinians, distanced himself from Abbas, writing on his Facebook page Friday that negotiations require two sides interested in a deal. “Abbas’s “conduct over the past 24 hours raises serious doubt about whether he is really interested in reaching an agreement,” wrote Lapid, whose party is the second largest in Netanyahu’s coalition.”
Rajoub vowed that the Palestinians “won’t resort to bloodshed” if the talks are indeed over, but said that if Israel “doesn’t want to end the conflict, we have the right to go to the UN.”
AP contributed to this report.