Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will face each other across the table in Amman on Tuesday for the first time in 16 months to discuss how, and indeed whether, diplomatic negotiations will proceed.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated on Monday the Palestinian Authority demand for a full Israeli cessation of construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem, and acceptance of the June 4, 1967, lines as the basis for a two-state solution, saying this would pave the way for the resumption of serious negotiations.

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Israel’s position, said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev, was that the talks should be held without any preconditions, and that they should deal substantively with all core issues.

“We sincerely hope that the meeting in Amman heralds the beginning of direct ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve peace,” Regev said.

Israel was ready to “move ahead on the path articulated by the Quartet, and we hope the Palestinians are willing to do so as well,” he continued.

The meeting is scheduled for early evening. The first part will be held together with the representatives of the Middle East Quartet – the US, EU, Russia and UN – who have met separately with each side on a number of occasions in Jerusalem since September.

The second part of the meeting will be between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the Jordanians being the only other people in the room.

Erekat, speaking to reporters in Ramallah, hailed Jordan’s King Abdullah for hosting the talks, and described them as designed to “commit” Israel to “international legitimacy, including the road map for peace, which calls for a freeze of construction in the settlements.”

He urged the Israeli government to take advantage of the “positive opportunity” provided by the Jordanian monarch by halting activities in the settlements, accepting the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 “borders” and releasing Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The issue of the prisoners will be at the top of the Palestinians’ agenda, Erekat said.

He added that former prime minister Ehud Olmert had promised PA President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would free Fatah-affiliated prisoners once a deal was struck with Hamas in return for IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.

An Israeli government official said that the Palestinians are free to bring up whatever they wish to discuss, just as Israel is free to bring up its concerns. “Israel is ready for mutual, reciprocal confidence- building measures,” he said.

Asked what steps Israel expected from the Palestinians in return for measures like the release of prisoners, the official said that over the past few weeks Jerusalem had been concerned about a number of Palestinian moves, such as unilateral actions in the UN, the PA’s reconciliation talks with Hamas and Abbas’s meetings in Turkey with terrorists released in the Schalit deal.

According to a Quartet statement from September 23 that set a framework for returning to negotiations, the two sides were supposed to hold a preparatory meeting within a month to agree on an agenda and procedure for moving forward.

Tuesday’s meeting in Amman appears to be the one required by the statement.

Erekat, who denied that the Palestinian leadership was considering dismantling the PA if the peace process collapsed, said the PA had complied with the Quartet’s conditions by presenting “comprehensive positions” on the issues of borders and security.

Within three months, the Quartet statement read, the sides were to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security. The Palestinians interpreted that to mean that each side was to present these proposals to the Quartet, which the Palestinians have done, while Israel’s interpretation was that they would be presented by the sides to each other during the three months of intensive negotiations.

The difference, one Israeli official said, was that the Palestinians wanted to get the Quartet more actively involved in arbitrating between the two sides, while Israel wanted to deal directly with the Palestinians without outside interference.

The official, asked if Israel had compiled its positions, said only that “we have done our homework.”

He would not say whether Israeli’s representative in the talks, chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, planned to present Erekat with Israel’s proposals on territory and security, stating the talks would only succeed if such details were not made public beforehand.

Criticism of the talks was voiced on Monday both in Israel and among several Palestinian groups.

Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) said that while this was a positive development, it seemed as if the Palestinians agreed to meet only to appease the international community. Shalom stated he did not believe this meeting was a breakthrough, and pointed out that it came just after Abbas met terrorists in Turkey and held talks with Hamas – which rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas, meanwhile, called on the PA to boycott the Amman meeting, arguing the talks would only benefit Israel and help it improve its image in the international arena.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine condemned the talks as a “grave mistake that would encourage the occupation [Israel] to pursue its practices” against Palestinians.

Islamic Jihad said the meeting was a waste of time and would allow Israel to continue creating facts on the ground.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the talks, saying “We are hopeful that this direct exchange can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet.

“The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace.”

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