Israel, Palestinians cautious on peace-talk invite

Israel and the Palestinians were waiting on Friday to study the wording of a statement from Washington inviting them to start direct talks on a Middle East peace treaty in the US capital in two weeks.

A diplomatic source in the United States said the Quartet of world powers engaged in Middle East peace-making had agreed on the details of the invitation on Thursday and would issue it formally on Friday.

But official reaction from both sides in the region remained guarded and diplomats cautioned that delay was possible. Israeli and Palestinian officials said they expected to see the US invitation and accompanying statement in the next three days.

“We are waiting to see the formulation of the American invitation draft. Our position remains that we don’t want preconditions,” an Israeli official said.

A Palestinian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “If the statement meets what we are calling for, we will say yes of course.”

The Palestinians were focused on the statement they expect from the Quartet — the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — which would set out terms of reference for the talks. Negotiations would begin with a summit hosted by President Barack Obama on September 2.

The Israel government, playing down the role of the Quartet, was focused on the forthcoming US invitation.

In three statements on the Middle East conflict this year, the Quartet said Israel should stop building settlements in the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian state within the borders of land it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel says direct talks should begin with no preconditions. For the Palestinians, however, the Quartet statement constitutes a minimum guarantee of the terms of reference.

The Palestinian official said that if statement of the Quartet was not satisfactory “we will express our demands”.

Twelve months
Middle East analysts say the peace process ,which began in the early 1990s, long ago established the basic outlines of a deal acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians, and identified crunch issues remaining to be thrashed out.

A Quartet statement in June said a deal could be concluded in 24 months. A draft statement that was being discussed by the partners on Thursday says 12 months should be sufficient.

In one year from now, the Palestinian Authority government intends to have established all the attributes of statehood, raising speculation that it might declare independence should talks fail to make progress on a “final status” treaty.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas broke off talks with the previous Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in late 2008 and contacts were frozen following Israel’s devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip in December of that year against the militant Islamist Palestinian movement, Hamas.

Contacts resumed in May this year after a hiatus of 19 months in the form of “proximity talks” via Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, who has been working for weeks to get Abbas to agree to upgrade the process by resuming direct negotiation.

Obama wants face-to-face talks started well before September 26, when Israel’s 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank is due to end. Full-scale return to settlement construction could sink the talks for good.

The draft statement as described by diplomatic sources on Thursday reaffirms the Quartet’s “full commitment to its previous statements”. But it does not explicitly repeat the demand for a settlement freeze — wording which would almost certainly be rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s centre-right coalition.

Abbas needs the endorsement of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the support of Arab states to engage Netanyahu in direct talks.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has warned the Israelis not to offer Abbas “some Mickey Mouse state”. — Reuters

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