PA, Israel blame each other at 'tense' start to negotiations

The long-awaited launch of Israeli-Palestinian bilateral final-status negotiations got off with a whimper Wednesday, as the two sides traded an hour of recriminations rather than setting up a framework for the new negotiating process. One Israeli diplomatic official, describing the atmosphere at the meeting in Jerusalem of the Israeli-Palestinian Steering Committee as "tense," said the sides came to the meeting with widely different ideas of what it was meant to accomplish. The officials said that while Israel saw the meeting as "a festive resumption of the peace process" that would deal with procedural issues about how to move the process forward, the Palestinians saw it as a forum for airing their grievances. According to Israeli officials, the Palestinian delegation - headed by former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei - said Israel's policy of building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa and the settlements, as well as the IDF's activities in the Gaza Strip, "undermine the trust of the Palestinian people in the peace process." As a result of Qurei's comments, Livni also went on the offensive, saying the Palestinians needed to do more regarding security, and that not only was the situation bad in Gaza with daily Kassam attacks, but two members of the Palestinian security apparatus, which the PA controls, killed Ido Zoldan near Kedumim last month. Even though both Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic officials said they were disappointed at the inauspicious beginning, the two sides agreed to hold another meeting of the Steering Committee at the end of the month. In addition, Livni and Qurei are expected to meet at the Paris meeting of donor states to the PA on Monday, a meeting that will also be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "This was supposed to be the kickoff of the post-Annapolis process," one Israeli official said. "But if every time we meet there will be nothing but a discussion of current events, we will get nowhere." Another Israeli official, however, took a more sanguine approach, saying it was important to note that the meeting took place, even though there were Palestinian threats to boycott it. "There was pressure on the Palestinians not to show, but they did and there was a meeting," the official said. "That is a start. Nobody had any illusions that this would be simple." Hints that the talks would not go smoothly were evident already late Tuesday night when a photo opportunity for the start of the meetings - which were originally scheduled for Jerusalem's King David Hotel - was canceled. According to Israeli officials, the Palestinians were concerned about how pictures of them shaking hands with the Israeli delegation would "play" on the "Palestinian street" in light of the IDF's activities in Gaza and the decision to build in Har Homa. In addition to the photo opportunity being canceled, the meeting was also moved to the Mount Zion Hotel, away from the eyes of the media. In Ramallah, meanwhile, Palestinian officials reiterated that Israel was not serious about moving forward with the peace process. "Today's meeting in Jerusalem was a waste of time, although it's always nice to visit the city," a PA official said. "If this is how the talks are going to be conducted, then we should spend our time doing more useful things." He said the Palestinians were particularly disappointed with Israel for refusing to halt construction in Har Homa, which he described as an illegal settlement. He said Israel also turned down the Palestinians' request to halt its military operations and to lift the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. "Instead of talking about ways to advance the peace process, we spent the day trading allegations," the official told The Jerusalem Post. "How can Israel hold us responsible for the rocket and mortar attacks when we don't have control over the Gaza Strip?" He said the Palestinians saw no point in continuing the talks with Israel as long as it continues to build new homes in Har Homa and the West Bank and wage military operations against Gaza. Qurei said Wednesday's meeting focused mainly on the issue of settlements, which he described as a "major obstacle" to achieving peace. "We asked the Israelis to fully abide by the road map," Qurei said. "This plan also calls for an end to settlement construction. How can we talk about achieving peace while Israel continues with its policy of settlement construction, assassinations, incursions and other forms of collective punishment?" Israeli officials said their Palestinian counterparts hurried after the meeting to brief the press on what was discussed, proof that the Palestinian delegation was "grandstanding" for their own audience and that their protests about Har Homa and the IDF action in Gaza were meant to quell criticism about the PA participation in the whole negotiating process. Meanwhile, incoming UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry of the Netherlands called for both Israelis and Palestinians to honor the road map and criticized the Har Homa project. Serry, who is to formally assume his position in January, met PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. AP quoted him as saying afterward that last month's Annapolis conference gave new hope for peace, but that work must be done to improve the lives of Palestinians even while the sides were trying to hammer out an agreement. "It's very important for both parties to really stick to their commitments under the road map," Serry reportedly said. He quoted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying that building new homes in Har Homa was "unhelpful and contrary to international law." In another development, two senior Hamas figures in the West Bank confirmed that their movement was holding talks with Fatah about ways to end the crisis between the two parties. Hussein Abu Qwaik and Faraj Rumanah said talks with Fatah never stopped despite the wide gap between the two sides. However, the Hamas leaders blamed Fatah for the lack of progress in the talks. They said Fatah's insistence that Hamas relinquish control over the Gaza Strip as a precondition for achieving reconciliation was threatening the talks. Hamas was "astonished" by Fatah's refusal to reform the Palestinian security forces, they added. This was the first time Hamas representatives had discussed secret negotiations that have been taking place with Fatah. They said it was premature to talk about understandings between the two parties, adding that they had been exchanging views on a number of issues of common interest.