US denies asking PA to assemble negotiating team for peace talks

Senior State Department official says premise of recent Israeli report on matter untrue; DC has been adamant that time isn’t right for high level talks on final status issues

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Then-US secretary of state John Kerry is seen at the State Department to mark the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on July 29, 2013. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Then-US secretary of state John Kerry is seen at the State Department to mark the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on July 29, 2013. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

NEW YORK — The Biden administration over the weekend denied that it had asked the Palestinian Authority to assemble a negotiating team for renewed peace talks with Israel.

Last week, Channel 12 reported that the PA had assembled a negotiations team at Washington’s behest, and said that Ramallah was set to demand an extension of its authority in the West Bank as part of talks brokered by the US.

“The premise of the story is not true. We didn’t ask the Palestinians to form a negotiating team,” a senior State Department official told The Times of Israel.

Another source familiar with the matter said that the US has been in separate talks with Jerusalem and Ramallah about steps that can be taken to improve the Palestinian economy and that Biden officials had simply recommended that each side put together an intra-ministerial team to better coordinate on the matter.

Nonetheless, the PA has reportedly begun taking steps to reassemble its peace negotiating team. PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh has been tapped to lead the effort, taking over for the late Saeb Erekat as head of the the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, according to the Darhaya news site.

A Palestinian official told the Times of Israel that the report was based on rumors and that no decision has been made on the matter.

Al-Sheikh is a close confidant of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and has been the main contact in Ramallah for US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, according to sources familiar with the matter.

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy, COGAT)

Last week’s Channel 12 report said the new PA team will demand that IDF soldiers be blocked from entering Area A of the West Bank, in addition to an expansion of its authority in areas B and C. The Oslo Accords grant the PA civilian and security control over Area A, but Israeli troops regularly enter the territory to carry out arrests. In Area B, the PA has civil control, while Israel has security control, and in Area C, Israel maintains control over both civil and security matters.

The PA also plans to demand other unspecified “trust-building measures” aimed at maintaining the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Channel 12 said.

The effort by Ramallah had begun before former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was replaced by Naftali Bennett earlier this month, and has intensified since, according to the network.

The Biden administration has been adamant that the sides are not ready for high-level negotiations aimed at reaching a two-state solution.

Instead, the US has focused on backing more modest steps that keep prospects for a two-state solution alive, while discouraging unilateral moves — namely settlement building, home demolitions and evictions by the Israelis, along with incitement and payments to convicted terrorists by the Palestinians — which make the outcome more difficult to achieve.

A source directly familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Monday that while the Biden administration is not particularly optimistic about its chances, there is hope that the new Israeli government will provide a new opportunity for positive steps. Bennett’s comments earlier this month in favor of “shrinking the conflict” did not go unnoticed by Washington, the source added.

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