Last Updated: Thu Jan 26, 2012 11:38 am (KSA) 08:38 am (GMT)

Palestinians and Israel eye last meeting as quartet deadline looms

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) appeared to soften his stance on a return to formal negotiations after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah (R).
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) appeared to soften his stance on a return to formal negotiations after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah (R).

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to hold a final round of talks on Wednesday as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he could resume negotiations if Israel would agree to determine borders.

Negotiators from both sides were to meet in Jordan later on Wednesday just hours before the expiry of a deadline set by the Middle East Quartet of diplomatic peacemakers, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would be their last.

But, following talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman earlier on Wednesday, Abbas appeared to soften his stance on a return to formal negotiations, saying it might be possible if Israel would agree to set out borders.

“If we determine the borders, it is possible to return to negotiations, but the Israelis don’t want to determine the borders,” Abbas said in comments published by the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.

Until now, the Palestinians have said they would only agree to return to the negotiating table if Israel agreed to freeze settlement construction and if it accepted the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War as the basis for discussions on future borders.

There was no immediate Israeli response to Abbas’s remarks which were made just hours before Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erakat and Mohammed Shtayeh were to meet Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho in Amman for a fifth round of “exploratory talks.”

The two negotiating teams have held four face-to-face meetings in Amman since January 3 in a bid to explore ways of returning to the direct talks which broke down in late 2010.

But they have made little tangible progress, prompting Palestinian threats to halt the talks unless there were concrete signs of progress by January 26.

Ashton in the region

International efforts to shore up the exploratory talks have been led by Abdullah and by visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who arrived in the region on Tuesday.

“I am a realist about where we are but I am a passionate believer that we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations,” Ashton told reporters in Gaza City earlier on Wednesday.

“So we are looking to see what we can do to help, but at the end this is a discussion that needs to take place between the two sides.”

The EU’s top diplomat was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening before heading to Amman where she was to meet with Abbas on Thursday.

The European Union wants Abbas to set aside his 2010 demand that Israel call a total halt to Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank before full talks resume.

Israel is being urged to make confidence-building moves, which could include the release of long-term prisoners and easier conditions for Palestinians in Israeli army-controlled areas of the West Bank.

“The fact that negotiators are talking to each other face-to-face is encouraging,” Ashton said.

The exploratory talks are intended to lead the parties back to direct talks in accordance with a timeline announced by the Quartet on October 26, which gave both sides three months to submit proposals on territory and security.

The deadline expires on Thursday.

The Palestinians say they have presented their proposals and accuse Israel of not reciprocating.

But Israel says it considers the three-month period to have begun from the first round of exploratory talks on January 3, with officials reportedly planning to present their outlines on borders and security in the coming two months.

Abbas said the Palestinians had been clear about their demands on security, and that a period of evaluation would follow what he and his officials have insisted will be the final round of exploratory talks today.

“We are ready for any Israeli requests on the issue of security, on the condition that not a single Israeli will be on Palestinian land,” he said.

“After the end of the exploratory meetings there will be a phase of evaluations and consultations with His Majesty King Abdullah II, and we will have a meeting of the Arab League Follow-up Committee on February 4,” he added.

“There we will take the decision.”

Earlier, an official in Ramallah said the Palestinians had complied with the Quartet’s demands and had laid out their positions in good faith.

“We accepted these exploratory meetings at the request of Jordan. They were not required by the Quartet statement, and it was expected that the negotiations would begin after the exploratory meetings,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We presented what was asked of us, but the Israeli government has not presented its vision of a solution,” he added.

“The last exploratory meeting will be held in Amman between us and the Israeli side and there will be no extension of these meetings after today.”

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