'Jewish state issue sank Quartet moves in the UN'

Sources say parties remain far apart in effort to restart talks; Barak says that despite any doubts, Israel should adopt the Quartet's initiative.

quartet dinner washington (photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
quartet dinner washington
(photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
The issue of whether and how to suggest that Israel should be a Jewish state ultimately sank diplomatic efforts to draft a substantive statement to revive peace talks, sources familiar with the matter said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the sources said Israel and the Palestinians - and their effective proxies in the negotiations, the United States and Russia - remain too far apart on that issue and others.
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The Quartet hoped to draft a statement with "terms of reference" to head off UN push by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas but when it became clear that was impossible, they chose to issue a statement on Friday designed to revive peace talks in spite of his request.
In a week of high-stakes diplomacy under the spotlight of the UN General Assembly last week, diplomats could not find a formula acceptable to both sides on the central issues: borders, settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Instead, they issued a statement that focused on process: calling for preparatory talks in a month, substantive proposals from both sides on borders and security within three months and a peace deal by the end of 2012.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday that Israel should adopt the new Quartet initiative, even if there were reservations.
During an Independence Party toast to celebrate Rosh Hashana, Barak said "things won't be clarified by using slogans, but only by placing the core issues on the table."
Earlier on Sunday, President Shimon Peres praised the new peace initiative, saying the plan creates a new opportunity to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel Radio reported.
Peres said that both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas had turned to their own supporters in their respective speeches to the UN General Assembly on Friday, but that no effort was made to lessen the gaps between the positions of the two sides.
"We would want a situation in which the political distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah was not greater than the geographical distance between them," he stated.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel should accept the Quartet's proposal to begin negotiations without preconditions, in an interview with Israel Radio.
He said that even though he has reservations about the proposal,  he hoped the Palestinians would respond to the initiative and begin serious dialogue with Israel.
The talks can open on any subject, Lieberman said, but from Israel's standpoint the most important issue is security. The foreign minister said he hoped the Palestinians understood that it was in their interest to focus on the political process and to postpone the vote on their statehood bid.
He warned that any one-sided move would lead to an Israeli response.
"We must be grateful to the United States for their assistance in events surrounding the embassy in Cairo and [Obama's] General Assembly speech, and we should therefore accept the International Quartet's proposal, despite reservations," Lieberman said.
"Mahmoud Abbas fled immediately after his speech, so that we could not, God forbid, negotiate," the foreign minister said. "The Palestinians make up excuses not to negotiate all the time. Those who want excuses will find them. Mahmoud Abbas continues to demand the right of return, and if a Palestinian state is established in Judea and Samaria, he will still want to send the refugees to Israeli territory ".
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had said that he would not give his opinion of the Quartet's proposal until he had returned to Ramallah and discussed its provisions with Palestinian leadership there. He reiterated the return to 1967 borders and halting of settlement construction as pre-conditions to negotiations.
The Middle East Quartet – the US, EU, Russia and the UN – has been trying for months to come up with a formula that would enable direct talks. Its formula was released on Friday afternoon, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seeking full UN membership.
The Quartet statement urged the parties “to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions.”
Acknowledging that talks by themselves will not reestablish trust, the Quartet proposed the following: a “preparatory meeting” between the parties within a month to agree to an agenda and a “method of proceeding in the negotiation.” The two sides will commit that the objective is to “reach an agreement within a time frame agreed to by the parties but not longer than the end of 2012.”