US envoy George Mitchell is discussing with the Palestinians what they want to talk about, and with Israel what it wants to talk about, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, denying the two sides were negotiating the parameters of a land swap.
Netanyahu, speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers, said there was no “back and forth” negotiation between the sides. He said Israel had received no Palestinian proposal on the issue.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Saturday that the two sides had agreed on the principle of a land swap, although the amount and ratio of the swap was not agreed upon.
Mitchell left the region on Thursday after completing the second round of indirect talks, with the Palestinians saying they discussed borders and refugees with Mitchell, and Israel saying that water was the main topic in its discussions with him.
Top IDF officers met Sunday with their Palestinian counterparts and updated them on the government’s decision to implement a series of goodwill gestures aimed at easing restrictions on the Palestinians in the West Bank.
The gestures include the lifting of 60 dirt roadblocks throughout the West Bank, the opening of the Keidar Road near Ma’aleh Adumim to Palestinian traffic and the opening of a crossing near Hebron to Palestinians as well. The IDF has also decided to permit 50 Israeli tour guides to take groups into Bethlehem and Jericho.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, expressed irritation on Sunday at what one described as the Palestinians’ “endless chatter” about the content of the indirect talks.
“We have been very discrete about the talks,” one official said, “because we want this process to succeed. If everything is made public, it will make things more difficult. The way the Palestinians are talking publicly raises questions about how serious they are taking the talks.”
The official said that for the talks to succeed and move into the stage of direct negotiations, a package deal would have to be agreed upon. But if the Palestinians pulled out and released to the public selected elements of the package, it would be impossible to reach a package deal because of domestic opposition to various components.
“Diplomacy, like mushrooms, grows in the shade,” the official said, pointing out that both the Camp David Accords and the Oslo Agreements were negotiated with few leaks to the public.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also took a downbeat assessment toward the talks, in a meeting he held on Sunday with the ambassadors from the EU countries.
Lieberman said that while Israel entered the talks with a true desire to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians, there was a sense that the Palestinians were just going through the motions, hoping the indirect talks would fail so there would be no need for direct negotiations. According to this school of thought, what the Palestinians really wanted was for the international community to impose a solution.
Lieberman added that recent comments by top PA officials that they were not abandoning the option of an armed struggle if the negotiations failed showed that the Palestinians were not coming to the indirect talks with “clean hands.”
“Those who really want to achieve peace need to know that there is no alternative to direct talks between the sides, and they need to understand that only negotiation, not violence, can bring about an agreement,” he told the ambassadors.
On Saturday, Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former PLO envoy to Lebanon, was quoted in a Jordanian newspaper as saying that Fatah did not rule out resuming “armed struggle” against Israel if the proximity talks failed.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Gudio Westerwelle, speaking in Jordan on Sunday after meeting Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, urged Israel and the PA to enter direct negotiations.
“The coming months will be crucial,” he said at a press conference. “We ask the parties to move from proximity talks to direct negotiations as a sole path that leads to the two-state solution and stability in the Middle East.”
The diplomatic process is likely to be high on the agenda when Netanyahu
meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday.
Netanyahu will travel to Paris for the official induction of Israel into
the OECD, and has scheduled a meeting with Sarkozy on the sidelines of
that event. He is scheduled to meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi there as well.
From Paris, Netanyahu will travel to Canada for a meeting with Prime
Minister Stephen Harper.
In a related development, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is
scheduled to arrive on Monday to meet with Netanyahu, Defense Minister
Ehud Barak and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.
These meetings are a follow-up to a meeting between Netanyahu and
President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt earlier this month.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.