Palestinians last night delivered a written ultimatum to Israel from President Mahmoud Abbas, setting out the parameters for stalled peace talks to resume, and warning that both sides were sliding towards a bi-national state.
Salaam Fayyad, the Western-backed Palestinian Prime Minister, was scheduled to meet his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the highest-level meeting between the two sides in 18 months, but pulled out after privately dismissing the letter as a pointless publicity stunt, according to local media reports. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat presented the letter in his place.
The last-minute withdrawal by Mr Fayyad reflects the deepening divide within the Palestinian leadership over how to navigate the impasse in peace talks, due to Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
In leaked excerpts of the letter, Mr Abbas says Israeli intransigence has stripped the Palestinian Authority (PA), created by the 1993 Oslo peace accords, of its "raison d'etre" and warns the two sides must "avoid sliding towards the one-state option, especially as the current status quo cannot continue."
"As a result of actions taken by successive Israeli governments, the Palestinian National Authority no longer has any authority, and no meaningful jurisdiction in the political, economic, territorial and security spheres," he wrote.
The letter, which calls for a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders and an end to settlement expansion, is a watered-down version of earlier drafts, following intense pressure from Washington, with threats to dismantle the PA and pass responsibility for the occupied territories to Israel excised from the final version.
Although he said he views the PA as essentially powerless, Mr Abbas told reporters he had no intention of dismantling the body.
Nevertheless, if a positive response is not forthcoming from Israel, the letter could precipitate a revived Palestinian statehood bid in the UN General Assembly – following failed efforts to secure backing in the Security Council last autumn. Analysts say the move could invite Israeli retaliation that might in any case threaten the PA's survival.
Earlier this month, Yossi Beilin, a a former Israeli politician widely regarded as the architect of the Oslo accords that envisaged a "two-state solution," implored Mr Abbas in an open letter to make good on earlier threats to dissolve the PA and end "this farce". His call reflects a growing international concern that the Jewish settlement expansion under Mr Netanyahu's watch impedes the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
* A senior Israeli minister has conceded that a statement attributed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad threatening to "wipe Israel off the face of the map" was misquoted. Dan Meridor, the intelligence and atomic energy minister, admitted the 2005 quote, used by Mr Netanyahu, was taken out of context. "They didn't say 'we'll wipe it out', but that it is a cancerous tumour and should be removed," Mr Meridor said.