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Top Israeli minister downplays chances of new peace talks

Gilad Erdan compares Abbas to Iran’s Rouhani — neither, he says, has really given up on terror; the ball’s in Netanyahu’s court, says senior PA official Jibril Rajoub

Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90/File)
Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90/File)

Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan on Saturday downplayed the chances of Israel resuming direct talks with the Palestinians, despite the current intensive efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I know the secretary is scheduled to meet with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for the third time this evening, after meeting with [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas earlier in the day. But as far as I know, Abbas is still demanding the same preconditions, which we have no intentions of meeting,” said Erdan in an interview to Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday evening.

Erdan was commenting amid reports in Jordanian media that Kerry was about to announce a four-way summit between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, and the US, and the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Erdan defended Netanyahu’s record in striving for a two-state solution, highlighting the prime minister’s 2009 Bar Ilan University speech and the 10-month settlement construction freeze that he instituted later that year, and argued that all such efforts were met with rejections by the Palestinians and that Israel had learnt its lessons and would not make the same mistakes twice.

“The most important thing for us is ensuring the security of Israelis. We will not agree to the Palestinian’s preconditions,” Erdan said. “As a member of the internal security cabinet, I will personally vote against any capitulation to them.”

When the interviewer suggested that Abbas had renounced the path of violence in favor of diplomacy, Erdan expressed skepticism.

“Abbas, like [president elect Hasan] Rouhani in Iran, gave up on statements in support of terror, not because it is his moral position, not because he believes harming innocents is wrong, but because he understands they cause him political damage,” charged Erdan. “I do not see a genuine end of anti-Israel incitement. I still see Palestinians educating their children to commit acts of terror.”

Jibril Rajoub, 2008 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

On the same program, prior to Erdan, senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub had urged a resumption of talks leading to a two-state solution, an end to Israeli occupation, and the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We all pray that the time comes for us to sit down together. In my opinion, there is no alternative to talks for reaching a political solution — a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and West Jerusalem as the capital of neighboring Israel,” said Rajoub. “At the end of the day, we are neighbors. In the future, there will be no more occupation and no more killing and suffering for both peoples. I look forward to a breakthrough.”

Asked if he could confirm reports that Kerry was about to announce a four-way summit in Jordan, Rajoub said he could only confirm that Kerry was trying to bridge differences that would lead to direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“He [Kerry] is interested in bringing about change. I think the ball is now in Netanyahu’s court. If he really wants to solve the conflict on the basis of two states for two people, we are willing to meet him halfway and open a new page in our relations. Instead of enemies, we will be neighbors,” said the Hebrew speaking Rajoub.

Asked whether Abbas would be willing to drop preconditions ahead of talks, Rajoub said the Palestinians had no preconditions and countered that Netanyahu was the one seeking reasons not to go ahead with talks.

“There is a near Palestinian consensus that a state within the ’67 borders is the endgame. This consensus also exist in the Arab world and the international community. C’mon guys, lets go ahead with this,” said Rajoub.

Asked whether the Palestinians wanted to wait for a new prime minister to take Netanyahu’s place before advancing to talks, Rajoub said, “We would like a prime minister with balls, like former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He understood that the future of Israel depended on the creation of a Palestinian state and that peace was as much an Israeli interest as it is a Palestinian one.”

Kerry met Saturday for two hours with Abbas in Amman, in their second set of discussions in two days.

He planned more talks Saturday night with Netanyahu in Jerusalem after the two held two meetings over the past two days.

Though no formal word has come out about Kerry’s achievements, foreign media outlets were ripe with comments by unnamed officials.

According to Chinese News Agency Xinhua, Abbas told Kerry on Friday that Israel’s goodwill gestures were too insufficient for the resumption of peace talks.

“What Israel offers in terms of releasing a limited number of prisoners and increasing the Palestinian Authority’ s influence in the West Bank is not enough for President Abbas to accept returning to the negotiating table,” the news agency quoted a Palestinian official as saying.

The official reportedly said Israel would have to freeze settlement building and accept a two-state solution with pre-1967 borders for talks between the two sides to continue, adding that Abbas had told Kerry as much during their meeting in Amman.

Meanwhile, Jordanian newspaper al-Arab al-Youm quoted a Palestinian official saying Kerry had in fact managed to secure Israel’s agreement to hold limited talks in order to discuss a possible settlement construction freeze, the marking out of borders for a future Palestinian state, and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The paper did not say when the talks would start or how long they would last.

A report on Israel’s Channel 2 news Friday evening said Kerry is bidding to broker a series of at least three meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas at the start of new direct peace talks, and is seeking guarantees from the Israelis and the Palestinians that a new peace effort will not quickly fall apart, as happened with the last resumption of negotiations in 2010.

Kerry, who is on a two-week swing through the Mideast and Asia, has conducted the meetings at a breakneck pace. He even cancelled a stop in Abu Dhabi because of extended discussions on the Mideast peace process.

He had a four-hour dinner meeting with Netanyahu Thursday night in Jerusalem, followed by a more than two-hour lunch with Abbas on Friday in Amman at the home of the Palestinian ambassador to Jordan. Then it was back to Jerusalem for another meeting with Netanyahu and dinner with President Shimon Peres.

On Saturday morning, he boarded a helicopter to fly back to Amman to meet again with Abbas, this time at the Palestinian president’s residence there.

Later Saturday, he was to meet with Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and Isaac Molho, a Netanyahu envoy.

Kerry was scheduled to leave Jerusalem on Sunday to head to Brunei for a Southeast Asia security conference.

There is deep skepticism about Kerry’s ability to get the two sides to agree on a two-state solution, something that has eluded presidents and diplomats for years. But the flurry of meetings has heightened expectations that the two sides can be convinced to at least restart talks, which broke down in 2008.

So far, there have been no public signs that the two sides are narrowing their differences.

In the past, Abbas has said he won’t negotiate unless Israel stops building settlements on war-won lands or accepts its 1967 lines — before the capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem in a Mideast war that year — as a starting point for border talks. The Palestinians claim all three areas for their future state.

Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demands, saying there should be no pre-conditions for talks.

Abbas made significant progress with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in talks in 2007 and 2008, but chose not to accept Olmert’s 2008 peace offer, under which Israel would have left the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, and divided Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has adopted much tougher starting positions than Olmert, refusing to recognize Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks. Abbas and his aides suspect Netanyahu wants to resume talks for the sake of negotiating and creating a diplomatic shield for Israel, not in order to reach an agreement.

Netanyahu has said all issues can be discussed in direct talks, but has ruled out pre-conditions, and fears Abbas will abandon any new talks, blame Israel, and turn to the UN for recognition for the Palestinians.

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