(photo credit: AP)
In a surprise move, the Palestinian Authority on Monday set pre-conditions for participating in the US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
The PA also said it would stay away from the conference unless key Arab countries participated in it.
The pre-conditions were announced following the weekly meeting of the PA cabinet in Ramallah.
Two top PA envoys, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Akram Haniyeh, have been dispatched to Washington to relay the new demands to US officials, a PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post.
The meeting was chaired by PA President Mahmoud Abbas who, according to his aides, expressed disappointment with the lack of progress in negotiations to reach a joint declaration of principles with Israel ahead of the peace conference.
Abbas told the cabinet ministers that it was important for the Palestinians to know what concessions Israel is prepared to make before going to Annapolis. He also said that he saw no point in going to the conference while Israel was continuing to build in settlements in the West Bank.
Abbas is scheduled to attend a meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo later this week to seek backing for his demands ahead of the conference. PA Information Minister Riad Malki told reporters after the meeting that Israel must first promise to fulfill the following pre-conditions before the Annapolis conference: end settlement construction and natural growth of settlers, dismantle settlement outposts, remove IDF checkpoints and reopen all closed PLO institutions in east Jerusalem.
"If Israel agrees to meet these conditions, that would be enough for the Palestinian Authority and the Arab countries to attend the Annapolis conference," Malki said. He added that with regards to the fundamental issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, the two parties were closer than ever to reaching agreement.
Malki said the Palestinians see the forthcoming conference as a real opportunity to achieve peace in the Middle East. He said the PA was also demanding that a Palestinian state be established within six months after the Annapolis conference or before the end of US President George W. Bush's term in office.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat on Monday dispatched letters to representatives of the Quartet and other countries urging them to exert pressure on Israel to meet the demands of the Palestinians.
The letter emphasized the importance of forcing Israel to freeze construction in the settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and halt the natural growth of settlers, dismantle all settlement outposts, remove checkpoints, release a large number of Palestinian prisoners and reopen all PLO institutions in Jerusalem, first and foremost Orient House.
Erekat attached to the letter documents and maps detailing ongoing construction in settlements, the destruction of illegal houses in Jerusalem and the continued construction of the security fence in the West Bank.
Erekat called on the Quartet members to work "through actions, not words," toward restoring the credibility of the peace process.
"The only path to peace lies in a credible peace process that would lead to the end of the Israeli occupation that began in 1967," he said.
A spokesman for Abbas's Fatah faction in the West Bank warned that failure at Annapolis would lead to "disaster" and "confrontations" in the region. "Failure of efforts to achieve peace will lead to a catastrophe, confrontation and political suicide for Israel," said Nayef Ishtawi, spokesman for the shabiba Fatah youth movement. "Israeli intransigence will sabotage the conference and Israel will be fully and historically responsible for wasting a chance to achieve peace and security."
Echoing the sense of pessimism among Palestinians toward the peace conference, newspaper editor Hafez Barghouti said on Monday: "The Israelis want everything, but don't want to give anything. We have said for some time now that there is no partner on the Israeli side because [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert is too weak to take decisive decisions."
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