The government on Sunday formally accepted the Quartet’s proposal for restarting negotiations with the Palestinians, squarely throwing the ball back at the Palestinian Authority, which has yet to accept the formula.
Following a meeting of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s eight-man inner cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a carefully-written English-language statement saying Israel “welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
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“While Israel has some concerns,” the statement read, “it will raise them at the appropriate time.
“Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay.”
Sunday’s inner cabinet meeting was the second one on the matter since the Quartet issued a formula for renewing talks following Netanyahu’s and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s speeches to the UN General Assembly on September 23, during which Abbas formally filed a request to the Security Council for full UN membership for “Palestine.”
The Quartet statement urged the parties “to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions.”
It proposed a “preparatory meeting” between the parties within a month to agree to an agenda and “method of proceeding in the negotiation,” and suggested that the two sides commit to the objective of reaching an agreement “within a timeframe agreed to by the parties but not longer than the end of 2012.”
The statement also said the expectation is that the parties will come up with a comprehensive proposal on territory and security within three months, and will have made “substantial progress” within six months. To facilitate this, an international conference will be held in Moscow “at the appropriate time.”
While the Palestinians have not formally rejected the proposal, Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said on Sunday the PA would only return to talks if Israel froze all construction beyond the Green Line and accepted the pre-1967 lines as the basis for a two-state solution.
The Quartet framework made no reference either to the settlements or to the 1967 lines.
One government official termed the Palestinian demands “disingenuous,” since he said both the issue of the settlements and the pre- 1967 lines would be discussed in the negotiations. He also rejected the claim that the recent approval of a project with 1,100 housing units in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, beyond the Green Line, was what was going to keep the Palestinians from the talks.
“If they want excuses not to negotiate, they will always find them. No Israeli government has ever stopped building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem,” he said.
Government officials said Israel’s primary “concern” with the Quartet formula had to do with its isolation of security and territories from the other core issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees.
Netanyahu’s position up until now has been that the key issues – Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees – should be discussed in parallel, to facilitate trade-offs and flexibility on both sides.
For instance, according to this argument, if borders and security were dealt with in isolation of the other issues, and Israel made concessions to the Palestinians on the territorial issues, then the PA would have no reason afterward to show any flexibility on the refugee issue, or for that matter on the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
The core issues of borders and security, Jerusalem and refugees, have often been placed in pairs, with the conventional wisdom being that Israel would make concessions on borders and get concessions from the Palestinians regarding security arrangements on the one hand, and on the other hand the Palestinians would show flexibility on the refugee issue and get Israeli concessions on Jerusalem.
Government officials denied that two other elements in the Quartet statement that at first blush appeared as if they would present a problem for Israel – the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of 2012, and the call for an international conference in Moscow – were in any way problematic.
Regarding the timeline, government officials said that Netanyahu already said publicly in the late summer of 2009 that he believed an agreement could be reached within a year. And regarding the idea of an international conference in Moscow – something that the Russians have been keen on hosting since the Annapolis conference in 2007 – the official said that Israel had “no inherent problem with Russia” holding the conference, though it should be clear that the US still held the dominant Mideast peacemaking role.