JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israelis and Palestinians open talks on Monday on the most intractable issues of their conflict, with major obstacles still blocking a deal that US President George W. Bush hopes will be sealed within a year.
Top negotiators Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei were to meet in Jerusalem for the first time since Bush’s landmark peace mission last week, officials said.
“Today the talks will begin on the core issues,” a senior aide to Livni told AFP.
“Livni is authorised to discuss all the issues, and the issues where they fail to reach understanding will be referred to (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert and Abu Mazen,” he said, referring to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
During his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, Bush predicted the two sides would sign a peace treaty to end their decades-old conflict before he left office in January 2009.
“I believe it’s going to happen, that there’s going to be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office,” he said, just six weeks after the two sides formally relaunched the peace process after a seven-year freeze.
Aiming to score a foreign policy triumph before Bush leaves office, his administration has turned its attention to the festering Middle East conflict over the past year, especially after Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip seven months ago.
As he wrapped up his visit, promising to return for the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary celebrations in May, Bush said he was determined to push the two sides into sealing a deal that has eluded numerous previous US administratons.
In blunt language, he sketched the shape of the treaty he envisions: an end to the Israeli occupation, a halt to settlement expansion, Palestinians dismantling “terror infrastructure,” modification of the 1967 borders by mutual consent, an international mechanism to deal with the refugee issue.
On the most sensitive issue of Jerusalem — the Holy City that both Israelis and Palestinans claim as their capital — Bush said simply that the two sides will have to work it out.
But they remain as far apart as ever on the issues that Livni and Qorei will take the latest stab at tackling on Monday — Jerusalem, refugees, settlements.
On settlements, for example, the Palestinians are demanding a complete halt to all activity in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
But while Olmert has pledged not to build any new settlements, to expropriate more land and to dismantle wildcat outposts, he made clear that “Jerusalem as far as we are concerned is not in the same status.”
The two sides are at odds over Israeli operations against militants in Gaza and the West Bank — the Palestinian Authority says they undermine its authority and efforts to improve law and order; Israel insists they are necessary to prevent attacks.
And the issue of Gaza also looms large over the negotiations, with the smaller half of a future Palestinian state out of Abbas’s control since the bloody takeover by Hamas in June 2007.
Both the United States and Israel have said a peace deal will not be implemented on the ground until the moderate president regains control over the territory sandwiched between southern Israel and Egypt.
“That’s why we repeatedly said that the Palestinian Authority should resume its responsability for the government in Gaza as well,” a senior US official told reporters after Bush left. “Exactly how that is going to work I don’t know, I can’t predict the future.”