PA sets conditions for informal talks with Israel

PA president says he'll sit at same table with PM in return for gestures, but full talks won't resume without settlement freeze.

Abbas and Hollande 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abbas and Hollande 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Palestinian Authority is willing to talk with Israel, but won’t hold formal negotiations without a settlement freeze, according to statements PA President Mahmoud Abbas made on Friday.
But Abbas cautioned that Israel must meet two demands for the informal talks – release more prisoners and allow for the import of weapons for the PA security forces in the West Bank.
“I have said that if [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu agrees to release prisoners and allows us to import weapons for the police, we will launch dialogue.
This does not mean that we would negotiate,” Abbas said according to Wafa, the PA’s official news agency.
He spoke as the international community continues to work for the resumption of direct negotiations.
US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Friday that “we are continuing to work hard with both parties,” adding that “this is hard, difficult work. We are doing what we can to support getting them back to the table.”
Nuland said that the US special envoy to the Middle East peace process is due back in the region soon.
Israelis and Palestinians held informal talks in Amman in January that were followed by an exchange of letters between Abbas and Netanyahu in the spring. But the two leaders have not met face to face since September 2010.
On Saturday night, an Israeli official said Netanyahu was ready for the immediate resumption of talks without preconditions.
“In the framework of these talks, all the issues that separate Israelis from Palestinians will be on the table,” he said. “Both sides can raise their concerns.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed his readiness to meet Palestinian [Authority] President Abbas anywhere, any time,” the official said.
He added that if the Palestinians were not ready for high-level talks, Israel was willing to hold a dialogue with them at a working level.
As to Abbas’s preconditions for even informal talks, the Israeli official said that he was not aware of any weapons shortage among Palestinian security personnel in the West Bank.
“Just two weeks ago, as a confidence-building measure, Israel released the bodies of dead terrorists for burial in the Palestinian territories,” the official said.
“I would hope that the Palestinians would appreciate that gesture and respond in kind.”
Abbas on Friday, however, supported his demand for Israel to halt settlement activity.
He said that the cessation of settlement construction is not a precondition for returning to the negotiating table, but an obligation that is mentioned in more than one international document and agreement.
“We say that a freeze of construction in the settlements would pave the way for the resumption of the negotiations,” Abbas said, after meeting with newly elected French President François Hollande in Paris.
Abbas reiterated his threat to go back to the United Nations and ask for recognition of a Palestinian state if efforts to revive the peace talks fail.
“We will surely go to the General Assembly to obtain the status of non-member state,” he added. He predicted that such a move would be met with obstacles by various parties, but did not elaborate.
“The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court,” Abbas said.
“The moment he agrees to stop settlement construction and accepts the borders of the two states, we will go directly to the negotiations to discuss the remaining final-status issues.”
He made his comments just two days after Netanyahu announced that his government planed to market 851 new homes in West Bank settlements.
On Friday, Germany added its voice to those who had condemned the plan on Wednesday and Thursday, including France, the US and the UN.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke in Berlin said that the new construction ran counter to all efforts to relaunch the peace talks. He also attacked Netanyahu’s argument that the construction was an appropriate response to a High Court of Justice mandate to remove five apartment buildings in the Ulpana outpost.
“The eviction or relocation of outposts – as it has been announced in the past few days – does not legitimize an increase in settlement construction elsewhere,” he said.
An Israeli official said in response that the international reaction was not unexpected.
“This disagreement between us and the Europeans is not new,” the official said.
He stressed that, except for the units in the Kiryat Arba settlement, the rest of the planned construction was in settlement blocs that Israel expected to retain in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians, and asked how such a move would impact the peace process.
Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz told Channel 2 on Saturday night that he intends to meet with Abbas to try to get the peace process off the ground.
Advancing the peace process was one of the four issues that served as the basis for the coalition agreement between Likud and Kadima.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On mocked Mofaz, saying that after Netanyahu’s plan for 851 new settlers homes in the West Bank, “talks between Mofaz and Abbas will help negotiations like cups of wind help the dead.”
Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Saturday that Egypt is making efforts to resume the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
Erekat reiterated the PA’s conditions for resuming the talks: a complete cessation of settlement construction and recognition of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for a two-state solution.
He said that Egypt has long acted as a mediator in the peace negotiations, while at the same time supporting the Palestinian position.
The chief negotiator denied that secret talks were already taking place with Israel.
He called on the Obama administration to stop dealing with Israel “as a country above the law” and warned that construction in the settlements would destroy the peace process.
Erekat’s remarks came in response to a report in the London- based Al-Hayat newspaper, which quoted a senior government official in Cairo as saying that Egypt would not stop backing the Palestinians in their effort to declare a state, regardless of who wins the presidential election.
The official said that the Rafah border crossing would not be closed to Palestinians and Egypt would not “allow a siege against the Gaza Strip.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.