Israel-Palestine talks falter despite US efforts

 

Jerusalem

With just two months to go before the deadline expires for reaching a framework that would enable the continuation of US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy, the two sides seem as far apart as ever on the core issues of their dispute.

This, despite 10 trips to the region by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who in June announced the resumption of negotiations after three years in which there were no contacts. Initially, Mr Kerry said the goal was to reach a full-fledged end of conflict accord within nine months. But he subsequently scaled that down to a framework agreement to enable further talks by the end of April. In recent weeks, as noted by leading Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher, Mr Kerry has backtracked further, putting the goal as a document which the sides do not have to endorse as long as they do not reject.

The latest diplomacy by Mr Kerry, in which he met twice last week in Paris with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has left the Palestinian side disgruntled and pessimistic, in part over Washington's embrace of Israel's demand that the Palestinians formally recognise the Jewish character of the Israeli state, a condition that was not required of Egypt and Jordan when they signed peace treaties with Israel.

"What Kerry has been doing with the framework is taking the arguments of Israel and trying to present them to the Palestinians,'' said Abdullah Abdullah, deputy commissioner of international relations for Mr Abbas's Fatah movement. ''We still hope he will review his ideas and come up with something that is fair."

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Mr Abdullah said Mr Kerry's ideas do not until now include Israeli recognition of a Palestinian capital in the area that was Jordanian Jerusalem until the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured East Jerusalem along with the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians also object to the continued presence of Israeli soldiers in the strategic Jordan Valley area of the West Bank. ''Any Israeli soldier left in the Palestinian state means the occupation hasn't ended,'' Mr Abdullah said.

Israel, meanwhile, does not accept that the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state be based on those that prevailed between Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 war. And pro-settler elements within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition have voiced alarm at reports that Mr Kerry's framework document will include a freeze on building in isolated settlements in the West Bank.

But it is the Jewish state demand that appears to be raising the most Palestinian ire. Mr Abdullah says that accepting it would harm the status of Israel's Arab minority, which makes up twenty per cent of the population and is supposed to enjoy equal rights. ''If we do this, they will be aliens and can be thrown out at any time,'' he says. Accepting the demand would undermine the Palestinian ''right of return'' to places of origin inside Israel, something Kerry has passed over but which the Palestinians still insist on, he says.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says Israel will not give up on this point. ''The question of recognition of the Jewish state's legitimacy is the core of the conflict. You can't have an end of conflict without it.'' He also said there would be no budging on keeping Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley because foreign peacekeepers ''can't be counted on.''

One prominent Palestinian, Nabil Amr, the former ambassador to Egypt, has attracted criticism from other Palestinian politicians by appearing to show some flexibility on the Jewish state demand. ''It is impossible to accept this issue as Netanyahu explains it, but the Americans can find some new formula,'' he told The Independent.

The US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro told Israel Radio on Friday that he expects Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character to be part of the framework agreement. ''It has always been US policy that Israel is a Jewish state and should remain a Jewish state,'' he said.

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