Peace talks won't focus on content

Israeli officials dismiss Palestinian threats to boycott meeting if Har Homa expansion continues.

qurei 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
qurei 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who will meet in Jerusalem on Wednesday to kick off final-status negotiations following last month's Annapolis conference will focus on process, procedure and building a framework for the bilateral talks aimed at reaching an agreement by the end of 2008, according to senior diplomatic officials. According to the sources in Jerusalem, nothing has yet been decided regarding the framework of the talks, though they are expected to begin in earnest following US President George W. Bush's planned visit here in mid-January. The Americans will not participate in Wednesday's talks. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will head Israel's team in the talks, and former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei, who is heading the Palestinian delegation, met Monday to prepare for Wednesday's meeting of what is being called the Steering Committee. Livni's office released no information about the content of the meeting. Israeli officials dismissed as "not serious" Palestinian threats to boycott Wednesday's meeting if Israel did not cancel a tender to build 307 housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. Among the issues to be discussed Wednesday will be the frequency of Steering Committee meetings. Although no date has yet been set for the next meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, it is expected to take place shortly after the Steering Committee meeting. The two said at Annapolis that their biweekly meetings would run parallel to the negotiations. Olmert, meanwhile, said at a speech to the Israel Business Conference in Jerusalem on Monday that he intended to "take advantage of this opportunity to conduct serious, continuous, ongoing negotiations in order to reach an historic breakthrough toward a new political reality." Olmert characterized the Annapolis process as "an opportunity with many uncertain components, many risks and many dangers." However, he said, "under no circumstances can we allow this uncertainty and the risks to decide, because there is also an opportunity." Olmert said there was a direct link between Israel's robust economy and a "political horizon" with the Palestinians. "When there is political dialogue, when there is open and overt dialogue with most of the leading parties in the international community, when there is a horizon of peace rather than the ongoing danger of deteriorating into violence - there is also a chance for economic prosperity," he said. "Anyone who thinks that we can separate the two is suffering from self-delusion," he added. "There will be no significant growth if there is no political horizon." In an apparent reference to opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Olmert said, "One cannot be against Annapolis, endlessly frighten the public regarding national catastrophes, isolate Israel from the central stream of global politics and believe at the same time that markets can be increased, trade can be expanded, more foreign investors and investments can be brought here or that more and more countries can be encouraged to have improved economic relations with us." Olmert is scheduled to deliver a speech Tuesday night at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, but it is expected to focus more on Iran than on the negotiations with the Palestinians. In a related development, the interministerial committee dealing with unauthorized settlement outposts, headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, is scheduled to meet Tuesday. This committee was originally formed after the 2005 report by attorney Talia Sasson that found there were 105 unauthorized outposts. Its mandate has now been widened, and its primary goal is to set guidelines for legal construction in Judea and Samaria. No such guidelines have ever been formulated. Ramon originally set mid-November as the deadline for the committee to establish the rules for Judea and Samaria construction, which are aimed at preventing illegal building. The new rules would then be used to evaluate the legality of the 105 unauthorized outposts. However, no final decision on the matter is expected until next month. In addition to Ramon, the committee also includes Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman.