A Palestinian delegation handed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a letter setting out their grievances on Tuesday, but their prime minister, Salam Fayyad, refused to join them for what would have been the highest-level meeting since 2010.
Netanyahu, who took the letter from top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and intelligence chief Majed Faraj, promised a written reply in two weeks.
“Both sides hope the exchange of letters will help find a way to advance peace,” said a joint statement issued after the meeting in Jerusalem, according to Reuters.
The Palestinian letter, from President Mahmoud Abbas, demanded a halt to Israeli settlement construction on West Bank land captured in the 1967 Middle East war and deplored Israel's lack of commitment to the peace process, officials said.
Fayyad had been expected to lead the Palestinian team for what would have been the highest level meeting since formal peace talks between the two sides broke off in 2010.
But he was reluctant to engage with Israel on a day when more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike in protest against their conditions in Israeli jails, senior Palestinian officials told Reuters.
His last-minute withdrawal may also cast new light on divisions within the Palestinian political establishment, which has yet to find a strategy likely to lead to Palestinian statehood.
Fayyad told his colleagues that he was pulling out of the meeting because he had reservations about the letter’s contents and was worried about public opposition to the meeting, said an official in his office, The Associated Press reported. The official requested anonymity because the matter's sensitivity.
Erekat said after the meeting that Netanyahu had promised to “seriously consider” the Palestinian president's letter.
“We hope that the commitments on both sides will be honored,” Erekat said. “The current status quo cannot be maintained.”
An Israeli official said earlier that Netanyahu would reiterate his call for talks to resume without preconditions, and for a meeting with Abbas.
Further complicating peace efforts, Gaza is now controlled by the armed Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel. Reconciliation efforts between Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas have repeatedly stalled.
In an interview with the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar accused Abbas of “providing the Israeli side nothing but concessions.” He said the letter was a “trick” to fool the Palestinian people that “something is going on in the so-called peace process.”
The letter could be a basis for the Palestinians to renew their unilateral push for international recognition of statehood at the United Nations, an effort suspended last autumn amid stiff opposition from Washington and Israel.
Before the meeting, Palestinians said the letter would accuse Israel of failing to carry out its obligations under the 2003 “road map” agreed by both sides, which includes a halt to settlement activity on captured West Bank land.
Palestinian officials have confirmed that Abbas withdrew a threat in earlier drafts of the letter to resort to dissolving the Palestinian Authority, according to drafts of the document obtained by AP.
The authority was formed in the 1990s as an interim step toward independence for the Palestinians.
Both sides would suffer if the Palestinian Authority were dissolved. Tens of thousands of Palestinian civil servants and security forces would lose their jobs, and Israel, as an occupying power, would be placed in charge of running the West Bank again.
Foreign governments have viewed the letter with apprehension and urged the Palestinians not to use threatening language, but also welcomed the prospect of a rare high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting.
The Palestinians may take their case for statehood to the U.N. General Assembly, having failed to secure backing at the Security Council in 2011, though only the Security Council -- where the United States has veto power -- has the authority to grant full U.N. membership.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial settlement construction freeze he had imposed, at Washington’s behest, to persuade the Palestinians to take part in talks.
About 500,000 Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 war. Palestinians want the territory for an independent state along with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The settlements are considered illegal by the International Court of Justice, the highest U.N. legal body for disputes.
Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and says the status of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.
Tuesday’s activities coincided with the release of the longest hunger striker in Palestinian history.
Khader Adnan, who did not eat for 66 days, was freed late Tuesday as part of a deal reached with Israel.
The fate of the roughly 4,000 prisoners held by Israel is one of the most emotional issues for Palestinians. They are generally seen as heroes -- even when their crimes have involved killing Israeli civilians.