Palestinian official: Talks can continue, but only on borders

As US battles to save peace process, senior Fatah negotiator says ‘door still open,’ challenges Israel to produce map based on pre-1967 lines

Palestinian negotiators would be willing to continue peace talks with Israel, but only to discuss defining the borders of a future state, a senior Palestinian official said in comments published Thursday.

The statement by top Fatah official Mohammed Shtayyeh came as the US scrambled to keep talks alive after each side accused the other of making unilateral moves to torpedo negotiations over the last few days.

Speaking to Sky News Arabic on Wednesday, Shtayyeh, who resigned as a member of the Palestinian negotiating team in December, said the Palestinians were prepared to give talks another chance during April, but should they fail, they will seek to join 63 international organizations including the International Criminal Court.

Returning to the negotiations “will be on the border only,” he said, challenging Israel to present a map based on the 1967 lines.

Shtayyeh said that serious talks about the borders, a core issue, would prove that Israel and the US are sincere about reaching an agreement.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were scheduled to last until late April, but broke down earlier in the week after Israel balked at releasing a fourth round of prisoners, which Ramallah says was agreed to before the talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded on Tuesday by applying for membership in 15 international bodies, many of which are UN-related, seemingly contravening an agreement not to turn to the United Nations as long as talks continued.

The moves drew harsh responses from the US, with the White House accusing the sides of taking “tit-for-tat actions.”

US mediator Martin Indyk convened emergency talks late Wednesday night between the two sides’ chief negotiators, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the PA’s Saeb Erekat.

There was no word on the outcome of the meeting as of Thursday morning.

A source close to the talks quoted by the Walla news website said the chances of success were “slim, but we’ll keep trying.”

Shtayyeh said that while Abbas’s dramatic televised signing of the applications to join 15 international agencies on Tuesday night was in response to Israel’s stalling over the fourth phase of a series of promised prisoner releases, the “door for negotiations was still open till the end of the month.”

He blamed the cancellation of a visit to the region by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s duplicity over the prisoner release, saying the prime minister had assured Kerry nine times that he would indeed release the prisoners, but then reneged on the assurance.

PLO Central Committee Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo (photo credit: Flash90/Issam Rimawi)
The PLO’s Yasser Abed Rabbo (photo credit: Flash90/Issam Rimawi)

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, endorsed the Palestinian condition that talks focus on defining the borders of a state, but warned against meaningless gestures.

“We can’t return to the empty routine, a search for a framework for talks — this empty routine which is negotiating about negotiating,” he said on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

Despite the move to join international agencies, Abed Rabbo insisted that Abbas remained committed to the US peace efforts.

“The Palestinian leadership… wants the political process to continue. But we want a real political process, without tricks,” he said.

Livni termed Abbas’s applications to join the 15 treaties and conventions, which were formally submitted to UN and other officials on Wednesday morning, “a breach of [his] commitment” not to apply to UN bodies while the negotiations were continuing. “It harms Palestinian interests,” she said of the move. “If they want a state, they must understand it must pass through the negotiating room.”

Israeli officials were quoted earlier Wednesday saying Abbas had “torpedoed” a nascent, complex, three-way deal under which Israel would have freed a final batch of 26-30 long-term Palestinian terror convicts and also released 400 more Palestinian security prisoners not guilty of violent crimes, peace talks would have extended beyond the current April 29 deadline, and the US would have released American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Still, Livni said she believed talks would continue despite the crisis. ”We repeat and pledge that we will continue to fight for peace and stand like a fortified wall against the extremists, in the government as well, who are attempting to pass extreme legislation,” she said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin lambasted Livni for meeting with Erekat, saying it was “a disgrace to the State of Israel.”

“The time has come to stop being the go-to sucker of the Middle East,” he said. “I call on the prime minister and Minister Livni to end the entire negotiation process so long as Abbas doesn’t withdraw his request from the United Nations, and unilaterally implement the many measures Israel has in order to convince the Palestinian leadership that it doesn’t pay for them to fight us in the international arena.”

State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf refused to implicate Abbas’s move as the sole factor in Kerry’s decision to cancel his Wednesday meeting.

Harf would not answer questions Wednesday as to whether the State Department had been warned before Abbas made his Tuesday treaties and conventions move.

“Over the last 24 hours there have been unhelpful actions taken on both sides,” Harf said, described a growing “sense over the last 36 hours that we didn’t think it was a conducive environment for the secretary to travel there right now.”

Harf said that the coming days represented a critical stage for the talks. “This is one of the points in which both sides must make tough choices,” Harf warned, adding that the two sides “have made courageous decisions in the past” but that “we can’t make the tough decisions for them, they need to do it for themselves.”

Acknowledging that “it’s an easy story to write that making Middle East peace is hard,” Harf also emphasized that “talks are not at a dead end. There is still a chance to move the process forward.” During the past eight months, the negotiations had succeeded in “narrowing gaps” between the parties, she argued, but would not specify on which topics.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, said he did not know “if this is a real crisis or an imagined one” but that ”the ball is in the Palestinians’ court.” Should the Palestinians choose not to resume negotiations, Israel need not run after them with conciliatory gestures, he said. ”If you don’t want negotiations, that’s your decision,” he said.

Liberman also said he would not vote for any deal that included freeing Israeli-Arab prisoners, who were reportedly slated to be part of 104 freed in exchange for peace talks.

Netanyahu issued no immediate official response to Abbas’s move. But unnamed officials in Jerusalem were quoted by Channel 2 news saying Abbas’s application to join the 15 international treaties and conventions represented a “major breach” of his understandings with Israel and the US over peace negotiations, and that it indicated that there was now “almost no chance” of a Pollard-for-prisoners deal enabling the continuation of peace talks.

Netanyahu was reported by Channel 2 to have mustered a cabinet majority in the course of Tuesday for a Pollard-for-prisoners deal, and to have been “shocked” to see the televised ceremony in which Abbas signed off on the various letters of accession.

Palestinian officials denied that applying to join the treaties and conventions marked a breach of understandings, and said the PA was committed to continuing talks until the April 29 deadline. “This is the fulfillment of Palestine’s right and has nothing to do with negotiations or the reaching of an agreement,” the PLO’s negotiations department said in a statement.

AFP contributed to this report.

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