Peace talks: between rocks and a hard place
Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to continue talks for the next two weeks in an attempt to reach an agreement on extending the negotiations for another nine months.
Aside from this, very little, if anything at all, seems to be agreed on.
Israel is demanding that the Palestinians relinquish their decision to unilaterally join 15 international treaties and commit to continue the talks, in return for Israel releasing more Palestinian prisoners.
The Palestinians insist that the release of a fourth tranche of 26 prisoners was an Israeli promise that had nothing to do with extending the talks. To continue negotiations, they are demanding that Israel officially agrees to freezing all settlement building and commit to focusing on the borders issue in the next round of talks.
Although US mediator Martin Indyk is still in the region, the Obama administration has taken a back seat in recent days.
However, last month’s US proposal that the Palestinians agree to continue negotiating in return for a larger release of prisoners (around 400), an unofficial building freeze and the release of American-Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard, is still on the table. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already agreed to this framework, but the Palestinians are still demanding better terms.
If an agreement is not reached by the end of April, the Palestinian request to join the international treaties will be granted by the UN on May 2.
Meanwhile, as the Palestinians are going ahead with their unilateral recognition efforts, Israel is carrying out its own unilateral steps, including freezing money transfers to the PA. On Sunday, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon announced that 243 acres of land around the Gush Etzyon settlement bloc would be recognised as state-owned and therefore open for more settlement building. He also allowed settlers in Hebron to move into a building with disputed ownership.
Even though a deal is far off, Economics Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett categorically warned the prime minister over the weekend that any release of Israeli-Arab prisoners (as opposed to the previous deals which included Palestinians without Israeli citizenship) would lead to his party’s immediate departure from the coalition.
Three deputy ministers of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and the coalition chairman have also threatened to resign if the deal goes through.