JERUSALEM (AFP) – Hours after Israel and the Palestinians accepted a call to restart direct peace talks, politicians on both sides spoke of pitfalls ahead, warning that negotiations would be stillborn unless Israel stopped building in West Bank settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to embrace the summit call made on Friday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A statement from his office noted with satisfaction that, contrary to Palestinian demands that talks be contingent on Israel extending a temporary freeze on Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, Clinton stated explicitly that the talks must be without preconditions.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has been calling for a year and a half now for the start of such talks, so it’s a good thing that it’s going to happen,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told AFP. “We welcome the opportunity to start now”.
But a leader of the left-wing opposition in the Israeli parliament said the latest initiative would go the way of other efforts, which petered out over the years, unless Netanyahu and the hardliners on which his coalition government leans are ready to pay more than lip-service to Palestinian aspirations.
Israeli public radio quoted Haim Oron, of the Meretz party, as praising the United States for showing “initiative and assertiveness” in nudging the two sides back to the negotiating table after a 20-month hiatus, but he added a caveat.
“Without (Israel) continuing a total freeze on settlement and a genuine readiness to withdraw to the international borders and an end to offering the Palestinians a caricature of a state it will be a waste of everybody’s time,” he said.
Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) voted early on Saturday to accept the US invitation, but even as an aide to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas read out the decision of the policymaking executive committee, senior negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a warning.
“Unless the Israeli government stops settlement and stops demolishing homes in (Israeli-occupied) east Jerusalem we shall not be able to continue the talks,” he told reporters.
The Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip called it a bid “to fool the Palestinian people.”
“This invitation is a new attempt to fool the Palestinian people after the Annapolis experience, during which we were promised a Palestinian state within a year, but many years have passed and we are still at square one,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP in Gaza City.
Abu Zuhri was referring to formal restarting of peace negotiations between Abbas and then Israeli premier Ehud Olmert in the United States in November 2007, after a seven-year freeze.
Israel’s public radio said Israeli negotiators would insist at the talks, among other things, that a Palestinian state be demilitarised, with a lightly armed police force and that Israel would retain a presence along the strip of the West Bank running alongside the Jordanian border.
They would also demand that the Palestinians pledge not to enter into defense pacts with countries hostile to Israel, it reported.
US President Barack Obama will host Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Clinton said in her announcement on Friday.
The Middle East diplomatic Quartet — the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Russia — said its members reaffirmed strong support for direct negotiations “which can be completed within one year.”
A statement called on Israelis and Palestinians “to resolve all final status issues and fulfill the aspirations of both parties.”
The Quartet said “direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues” should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours.”
In Israel and the West Bank, officials reacted to the announcement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that direct Middle East peace talks would resume in Washington on September 2, with the goal of reaching a deal in one year.