PM won't discuss freeze before talks

Netanyahu rejects call to deal with core issues until negotiations.

Binyamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Associated Press)
Binyamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to reject a call to extend the settlement construction freeze and is likely to make clear again, before he departs to Washington on Tuesday, that the settlements are an issue – like all the other core issues – to be discussed in the negotiations themselves.
Senior government officials have said recently that Netanyahu does not intend to get drawn into a public discussion now on the issue, since it would be tantamount to debating the Palestinians’ preconditions for talks, which he has made clear Israel has rejected.
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Government officials have said there is no difference between the Palestinians saying they would not enter the talks until there was a total settlement freeze – preconditions Israel did not accept – and saying that they would walk away from the talks on September 27 if Israel did not extend the moratorium.
Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s calls for fortnightly face-to-face meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas during upcoming peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel Radio reported on Saturday, citing an interview Erekat conducted with the BBC in Arabic.
In the interview, Erekat added that it is too soon to establish who exactly will meet for negotiations, how often they will do so, and where the meetings will take place.
Erekat emphasized that the most important issue determining the success or failure of the talks at this point is Netanyahu’s stance on whether or not to extend the building freeze in the West Bank, scheduled to end on September 26.
Netanyahu is set to leave Tuesday for Washington for the relaunch of the talks. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama before an evening dinner that will include Obama, Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II, and Quartet envoy Tony Blair.
Obama is expected to meet privately with each of the participants before the dinner.
On Thursday at the State Department, Netanyahu and Abbas, in the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US envoy George Mitchell, will formally relaunch the talks in a brief public ceremony. After that, Netanyahu and Abbas, along with their negotiating teams, will attend their first working meeting, estimated to last three hours.
Netanyahu is expected to leave for Israel from Washington later that day.
The prime minister has made clear that he will lead the negotiations, with the help of a small team headed by his point-man on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho. This team will also include on a permanent basis National Security Council head Uzi Arad, director of policy planning Ron Dermer, and representatives of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and IDF.
On Saturday night, Netanyahu named Daniel Taub, from the Foreign Ministry’s legal department, and Ya’acov Hadas, the ministry’s deputy director-general for the Middle East department, as the Foreign Ministry’s representatives in his team.
“This is a small professional staff that will work seriously, in cooperation and with maximum discretion,” Netanyahu said Saturday evening. “When needed, it will be expanded and be supported by experts in different fields.”
In a related development, King Abdullah, in a Channel 1 interview broadcast over the weekend, said the fact that the talks are being launched in Washington “is a very clear signal of American determination to move the process forward.” He added that the talks between Netanyahu and Abbas could “really be the deciding factor” in how the Middle East will shape itself in the next 10 years.
Abdullah said he hopes both the leaders and their peoples know what is at stake, and that the peoples will “empower their leaders to solve the problem.”
“What we are trying to achieve is Israelis and Palestinians moving the process forward so the Arab peace initiative can be activated, and so that Israel’s future is not just to the Jordan River, Lebanon or Sinai. The bigger picture for the Israeli people is Israelis’ integration into the Arab Islamic world, that is the prize.”
Abdullah warned about a mind-set that accepted the status quo, saying the “minute we get into the status-quo mentality and accept what we have now, eventually someone is going to push the right button and there will be a conflict.”
Somewhat forebodingly, Abdullah said that “anytime we move to peace, there are always going to be elements out there that are going to destabilize it. We have to understand that, and keep our eyes focused on the bigger picture. There are always casualties in the pursuit of peace.”
In that vein, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi reported, according to Israel Radio, that the US and other western nations were pressuring Syria not to influence the talks negatively. According to the report, the western powers were urging Damascus to prevent Syria-based Palestinian factions opposed to the negotiations, mainly Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, from sabotaging the talks. In a related development, the EU said Saturday it would not participate in the talks.
A spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she would be in Beijing meeting with Chinese leaders at that time. Spokesman Darren Ennis also said that “for the EU as a whole, the focus is on a successful outcome of the talks [and not] on the choreography, or who goes to Washington.”
Ennis was responding to a statement Friday by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who said it would be “too bad” if the EU were locked out of the peace process.
Ennis said “the spotlight should be firmly focused on the talks themselves.”
Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.