Quartet in push to jump-start lifeless peace negotiations

IDF troops at the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are anywhere near achieving a compromise over the city

IDF troops at the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are anywhere near achieving a compromise over the city

Representatives of the international Quartet returned to Israel this week in an attempt to reanimate the peace process.

A first round of new talks had been planned for this visit but these are not yet happening.

The Palestinian Authority has issued a number of conditions that Israel must meet before it will agree to negotiations, including a further release of Palestinian prisoners.

Senior diplomats from the Quartet members - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - arrived on Tuesday for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to gain support for a framework for negotiations that was proposed last month.

According to the framework, the sides will begin intensive talks under American auspices without any pre-conditions but to a timetable that is to produce an agreement on two separate states, based on the pre-1967 borders, within 12 months.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already agreed to the framework, with reservations. The Palestinians are demanding that Mr Netanyahu first publicly acknowledge a commitment to the pre-1967 borders, a declaration he has so far refused to make.

Other conditions include the now constant demand that Israel "freeze" all settlement building and, in a new demand that was raised this week, the PA has requested the release of some 170 Palestinian prisoners, in addition to the 1,027 that Israel has agreed to free as part of the Shalit deal.

While the prisoner release has yet to be officially brought up, senior members of the PA made it clear this week that Israel "owes" the Fatah-controlled organisation a prisoner release to counter-balance the boost Hamas received following the Shalit deal.

The PA claimed it received a promise to that effect from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert three years ago but, while aides to Mr Olmert confirmed the undertaking, it is unclear whether Mr Netanyahu feels he is also obligated by the commitment.

Among the prisoners whose release the Palestinians are demanding are Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for his part in suicide attacks against Israelis, and Ahmed Sa'adat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, serving life for planning the assassination of Israeli Minister Rechavam Ze'evi.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in a speech in Washington last week that this was "not the right time to re-start talks". Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "The moment Israel promises to stop settlement building, including in Jerusalem, and accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, we will join negotiations."

Last week, Mr Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the delay in the resumption of talks, saying: "Only direct talks without preconditions can push forward the peace process."

Israel proposed a partial settlement freeze in which no publicly funded building would be carried out, but this was turned down by the Palestinians, who claimed that most of the building is carried out by private bodies.

The US administration proposed a "quiet freeze", in which Israel would not build in the West Bank or outside the settlement boundaries. Neither side has yet publicly responded to this latest proposal but Palestinian representatives stressed, as they have in the past, that a "freeze" from their point of view includes all building across the "green line", a cessation of building in Jerusalem and a ban on privately funded projects.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ramped up the war of words between the two sides when he said on Monday that "Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is the biggest obstacle to an agreement", and that "if there is an obstacle that can be immediately removed, it is Abu Mazen. He can resign. That would not be a threat but a blessing." These words produced a rare public contradiction from President Shimon Peres, who said that both Mr Abbas and Mr Fayyad are "serious leaders who want peace". The PA complained to Israel that Mr Lieberman's words were "a clear incitement to murder".

Last updated: 10:06am, October 27 2011