Report: Abbas interested in restarting limited peace talks

PA president expresses willingness to return to talks, according to media reports; until now, sought preconditions over settlements.

By
June 25, 2013 00:12
Mahmoud Abbas

Abbas 521. (photo credit: Marc Israël Sellem )

Palestinians are ready to restart negotiations with Israel, according to media reports on Monday night, just three days before US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for his fifth visit in four months.

As of 6.30 a.m., the Palestinian Authority had yet to issue a statement on the matter.

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Until now, Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Israel until it halts settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made his first trip to a West Bank settlement since his new government was sworn in this March.

During a ceremony to dedicate an elementary school in the Barkan settlement in his father’s memory, the prime minister spoke broadly of the importance of developing the land of Israel, but made no statements or pledges about the future of Judea and Samaria.

One Israeli official, who could not confirm the reports on channels 2 and 10, said that Israel’s policy was clear: It was ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions.

“Up until now the Palestinians have said no, but if they change their position that means it can start immediately,” the official said. The official cautioned the process would be complicated, and that to succeed both sides will need to be serious and stick to their commitment to the talks.

“Both sides will have to be prepared to stick it out,” the official said, “because anyone who thinks there is instant peace, like instant coffee, is deluding themselves.”

In recent days concern has emerged in Jerusalem that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may agree to enter the talks, but then leave them shortly afterward, as he did in September 2010 just a few weeks after negotiations with Netanyahu began, and as the Palestinians did again in early 2012 when the Palestinian delegation did not continue low-level talks with Israeli officials being held in Jordan.

These concerns, according to diplomatic officials, were expressed last Thursday by Netanyahu to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during their meeting in Jerusalem.

According to the officials, Netanyahu pressed the EU not to create any illusions that they will support Abbas and his positions if he comes back to the table, but then simply leaves again.

Settler sources said they did not know of any breakthrough in the talks, but added they did not believe it could include a new moratorium on settlement building. A de facto settlement freeze has existed since January, in which no new tenders have been issued for Jewish building the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

At the dedication ceremony at the Barkan elementary school, Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika urged Netanyahu not to halt settlement building.

“I call on you, Mr. prime minister, in front of hundreds of Samaria pupils who are hanging their hope on you, strengthen the settlements. Do not cave to internal or external pressure,” Mesika said at the dedication ceremony. “Look at the building, at the Zionism of the beautiful generation that was established here.

“Remember your father’s will, and in the end, remember that peace does not mean displacement, peace does not mean the theft of a home or of a young person’s childhood,” he continued. “Real peace, as you often say, comes from a place of mutual recognition, from a genuine willingness to live side by side. It does not come from uprooting settlements.”

In response, Netanyahu said, “We are here today to deepen our roots.”

He stood on a small outdoor stage by the yellow stucco school and looked out at the pupils from grades one to three who sat on white plastic chairs in front of him. Their legs dangled above the floor as they listened to him speak of the dedication of his father, Benzion, to education and the Jewish people.

Netanyahu has long spoken openly of his support for West Bank settlements, such as Barkan, located within the boundaries of the security barrier, even as he has pledged to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions.

Still, during his visit to Barkan, he ignored attempts by Mesika and the school’s principal, Sigalit Ben-Eli, to prod him into supportive statements or pledges about the future of Judea and Samaria.

Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer said the symbolism of Netanyahu’s presence in the settlement spoke volumes, even if he did not provide the settlers with verbal reassurances about their future.

“It’s a symbolic act,” Oppenheimer said. “This is, I think, the best way to understand where is the heart and mind of Netanyahu. He might speak vaguely about the need for a two-state solution, but on the ground, his ideological commitment is to the settlements and to holding onto the West Bank.”

Mesika agreed that Netanyahu’s visit was symbolic of the fact that he and the Israeli public stand behind the settlements. He added that Netanyahu’s presence at the dedication ceremony had no connection to Kerry’s upcoming visit.

As the settlement population closes in on 400,000 people, he said, it is obvious that it is an irreversible enterprise.

Established in 1981 in the Samaria region of the West Bank, Barkan is located 10.5 kilometers from the pre-1967 line, off of Route 5, close to the settlement city of Ariel. Israel considers it to be part of the Ariel bloc.

It is home to more than 1,464 people, according to the 2011 Central Bureau of Statistics data, up from 1,297 in 2008.

According to the Samaria Regional Council, the decision to name the school for Benzion Netanyahu, an acclaimed Jewish historian who died in April 2012 at age 102, was made while the school was still under construction.

It opened in September 2012 with 111 pupils in grades 1-3. But the ceremony was held only now for scheduling reasons. The council said that attempts to schedule the ceremony earlier had not been successful.

Now that the school year is about to close, Netanyahu set the date for Monday’s ceremony.

Officials explained that Kerry’s schedule had been in flux, and that he had initially been scheduled to come last week.

On Monday morning, Netanyahu was greeted by singing children, wearing white T-shirts and waving Israeli flags as he entered the school’s courtyard.

His father, he explained to the group, understood that creating a state for the Jewish people was the only solution to preserve its future.

“Were your parents born here?” he asked the children. Many of them raised their hands, and said, “yes.”

“What about your grandparents?” asked Netanyahu. Most of the children said, “no,” they were not.

Netanyahu also spoke to them briefly about the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition.

“All sorts of bad things happened to the Jews. Why? Because they did not have a country,” Netanyahu told them. “They did not have a land of their own, they did not have an army of their own. This is what my father saw. If you understand, remember it.”


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