Discussions between Israel, the Palestinians and the US over extending negotiations are serious and positive, sources in Ramallah told The Times of Israel Tuesday, even while vowing to hold fast to applications to 15 international treaty organizations.
At the same time, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said no Arab prisoners would be released if the Palestinian Authority did not back down from its applications, which Israel has characterized as a unilateral move in breach of an agreement governing the talks.
Sources in the Palestinian Authority told The Times of Israel that both sides were seeking to keep the stalled negotiations alive, but one added that “the distance between the sides is significant, primarily around the one issue of a settlement building freeze.”
One of the Palestinian officials said the issue of prisoners who were to have been set free by Israel in the fourth round of releases remains problematic, but he hinted that solutions were emerging, including the release of a large number of prisoners.
However, the source said Israeli settlement building remained a problem and an offer of a partial freeze that would not cover East Jerusalem or existing projects was unacceptable to the PA.
“We are not prepared for [Israeli Housing] Minister Uri Ariel to continue to run roughshod and keep building with excuses such as ‘tenders were already issued’ or that they ‘already received building permits.’ Building in East Jerusalem is also not acceptable,” the source said. “We are already familiar with all the excuses of the Israeli government. The freeze must be a complete freeze, in order for negotiations to continue past the end of the month.”
The official said the PA had not insisted on a settlement freeze before talks began in July, and in the meantime Israel had built in isolated settlements as well as West Bank communities within blocs that many see remaining under Israeli sovereignty under a peace deal.
Another official added that the Palestinian Authority won’t, under any circumstances, withdraw from its applications to 15 international organizations.
“It’s finished. Leave it alone, that won’t happen. What happened happened. We applied and we won’t retract; we crossed the line and it’s impossible to go back,” he said.
The official praised the positive atmosphere around the negotiating table and hinted that the sense of crisis presented by the media was a bit exaggerated. “Yes, the situation is difficult and problematic, but we do not, and you do not, want to see the talks fail.”
On Monday night, the sides held the second meeting in 24 hours. US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said efforts were ongoing to save the talks.
“Gaps remain but both sides are committed to narrow the gaps,” she told reporters.
However Liberman said Tuesday morning that Israel would not negotiate if it risked being seen as a “sucker.”
He said the Palestinian prisoner release would not happen as long as Palestinians pursue their bid to join UN agencies, and accused Ramallah of breaking the terms of the US-brokered peace talks.
“We are in favor of negotiations but the previous offer of releasing prisoners doesn’t exist anymore,” Lieberman told Israel Radio on Tuesday. “Whoever broke the rules has to bear responsibility… therefore the previous offer is not relevant anymore.”
Mohammed Ishtayeh, an aide to Abbas, said on Monday that the letters of accession will not be withdrawn and that the step is irreversible. He said the Palestinians were ready to widen their bid.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Malki said Arab foreign ministers would convene in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss the breakdown in talks and Abbas would ask them for political and financial support.
Under the terms of renewed talks, Israel had promised to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four groups, while the Palestinians said they would suspend a campaign to apply for membership as a state to various UN agencies.
But as the talks stalled last month, Israel failed to release the fourth group of prisoners on time.
The Palestinians then signed letters of accession for 15 international conventions.
In the interview, Liberman argued that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision was responsible for the failure of talks, calling it “provocative,” but reiterated that Israel is ready to discuss all issues in the framework of negotiations and will not accept conditions that would restrict negotiations to the issue of borders alone.
On the suggestion that the coalition could fall apart over the peace negotiations, Liberman said he preferred that negotiations continue and that all talk of parties potentially quitting the coalition was irresponsible.
On Sunday, Liberman said he preferred calling new elections to releasing more prisoners.
Aron Dónzis contributed to this report.