PA: US working on 3-month freeze extension to save talks

Abbas wins Egyptian, Jordanian backing for his refusal to return to negotiating table; Fatah and Hamas will restart reconciliation talks Oct. 20.

Abbas and Mubarak 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Abbas and Mubarak 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The Palestinian Authority said on Tuesday that it had won the backing of Egypt, Jordan and several other Arab countries for its refusal to return to the negotiating table unless Israel extended the moratorium on settlement construction.
The announcement was made following a meeting in Cairo between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
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A senior PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that the US administration was now talking about the possibility of extending the moratorium by an additional three months to avoid the collapse of the peace talks.
“This is not a bad proposal,” the official said. “But it remains to be seen if the Americans are able to exert pressure on [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to stop the construction in the settlements.”
Abbas’s talks in Cairo come ahead of a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Libya on Friday to discuss the future of the peace talks in light of the resumption of construction in the settlements.
The meeting is being held at the request of the PA leadership, which has announced that it won’t return to the negotiating table with Israel unless the settlement freeze is extended.
“There is full agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt with regard to the issue of settlement construction,” said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, following the Cairo meeting. “There has to be a comprehensive freeze of settlement construction so as to give peace efforts a chance.”
Nabil Sha’ath, a member of the PA negotiating team, said that the Palestinians can’t resume talks with Israel under the motto of land for peace “while the land is being stolen and settlements are growing.” He added that Israel alone would be held responsible for the destruction of the peace process.
“No US-sponsored peace process would have credibility when the Americans can’t force Israel to fulfill one of the principal obligations – to stop settlement construction,” Sha’ath said.
“We in Egypt are invested with our utmost efforts in ensuring that the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians will not collapse because of the settlements,” Mubarak said after the meeting with Abbas. He added that Egypt hoped “this opportunity to establish peace will not be missed as were many opportunities in the past.”
Meanwhile, Jordan’s King Abdullah II told Netanyahu by telephone on Tuesday to halt all building in the settlements.
“Any unilateral steps that threaten peace must be stopped, especially building in settlements,” Abdullah told Netanyahu, according to a statement released by his palace. “The region is at a critical point that requires significant effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples, an opportunity that must not be missed for the benefit of future generations.”
Abdullah met in Amman earlier Tuesday with Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog and stressed the need to take advantage of the historic opportunity afforded by the current talks. According to Herzog, the king said that all efforts must be made to ensure that the direct talks continue, something that will necessitate courage and a great deal of responsibility on the part of the leaders.
“We completely understand the size of this challenge and how it could eventually change the face of the Middle East, and the obligation on all the sides to take immediate, courageous steps for peace,” Herzog told the king. “We must advance direct negotiations for the sake of peace and improve relations between the states and residents of the Middle East in general. This requires that the leaders make maximum efforts and take responsibility.”
This was Herzog’s second trip to Amman in a little over a month, having met Jordanian Prime Minister Samir Rifaay at the end of August.
A spokeswoman for Herzog said that the minister had a long history of relations with Jordan’s royal family, starting many years ago with his uncle Ya’acov Herzog and former foreign minister Abba Eban, who worked with King Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, during the 1960s and 1970s.
The crisis surrounding the peace talks coincides with reports about a possible reconciliation between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas.
Representatives of the two rival parties are scheduled to hold a second round of talks on October 20 to discuss ways of ending their dispute and forming a unity government.
The first meeting was held in the Syrian capital of Damascus two weeks ago. It was the first meeting of its kind between Hamas and Fatah since the beginning of the year.
Spokesmen for the two sides said they were optimistic regarding the prospects of reaching a deal that would end their power struggle and the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Izat Risheq, a senior Hamas official in Syria, said the upcoming meeting would focus on solving security-related issues, including the release of hundreds of Hamas detainees from PA jails in the West Bank.
But despite the optimism expressed by both sides, Hamas and Fatah leaders continued to attack each other through the media.
Ahmed Bahr, a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, called on Fatah to “take a brave decision and fire the unconstitutional government of Salam Fayyad.” Bahr also called for bringing Fayyad to trial for allegedly perpetrating “dangerous crimes” against the Palestinians and their cause.
In a move that has further intensified tensions between Hamas and Fatah, a PA military court in the West Bank sentenced two Hamas supporters to prison.
Ala Hisham Abu Diab was sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labor while Abdel Fatah Hassan was given 12 years. The latter’s wife, Mirvat, was sentenced to one year in prison.
All three were indicted for their role in the death of three PA policemen during a violent confrontation with Hamas gunmen in Kalkilya in June 2009. The three were also found guilty of “conspiring against the Palestinian Authority and possessing unlicensed weapons.” In response, Hamas said that the verdicts contradicted the talk about a possible reconciliation with Fatah.
Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel condemned the court ruling, saying that judges who “receive their salaries from the Zionists can’t be called Palestinian.” He said that the verdict was in the context of the PA’s ongoing security clampdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
The families of the three defendants denied the charges and said their only “crime” was that they had provided shelter to Hamas gunmen who engaged in a firefight with PA security forces.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.