Jerusalem peace talks conclude third round under radar

Palestinians and Israelis maintain radio silence as talks progress

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Israel’s justice minister Tzipi Livni  in Jerusalem on August 16th. Ms Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in peace talks with Palestinian leaders, has refused to provide details on the state of the discussions. “We are arguing, but we are arguing inside the room,” she said. Photograph: Sebastian Scheiner/Reuters

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Israel’s justice minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem on August 16th. Ms Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in peace talks with Palestinian leaders, has refused to provide details on the state of the discussions. “We are arguing, but we are arguing inside the room,” she said. Photograph: Sebastian Scheiner/Reuters

 

With attention in the Middle East focused this week on the dramatic events in Egypt and Syria, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem discreetly concluded their third round of peace talks.

The negotiations are being held under a strict media blackout with even the time and location of the meetings withheld from the media.

To date the negotiating teams have abided by the ground rules of maintaining radio silence, not an insignificant achievement in this part of the world, where well-timed leaks to the media were an integral part of previous peace negotiations.

US secretary of state John Kerry has allocated nine months for the talks, which will alternate between Jerusalem and the West Bank. He insists the sides are serious in their desire to clinch a peace deal that will end the deeply entrenched conflict.

Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, a veteran of the previous round of talks, warned that “dramatic decisions” will have to be taken by Israel at the end of the negotiating process. However, she refused to provide details on the state of the discussions. “We are arguing but we are arguing inside the room,” she said.

She called on the pro-peace Labor party to join the government in order to ensure a majority for any peace deal in the face of significant opposition from right-wing pro-settler politicians in prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition.


Contentious issues
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has already confirmed that the most contentious issues are on the table: borders, settlements, Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

He warned this week that Israel must not place obstacles in the form of intensified construction in West Bank settlements, something, he said, that would contradict the genuine intention to make peace.

There remains significant opposition to the talks on the Palestinian street and among political groups.

Several Palestinian groups are forming a “national alliance”, comprised of Palestine Liberation Organisation factions and other organisations, to thwart any peace deal with Israel.

However, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said this week that the Palestinians would not have returned to the negotiating table were it not for a US letter of assurances guaranteeing their main negotiating preconditions.

He told a Nazareth radio station that the US had assured Palestinians in writing that the framework of the talks would recognise the pre-1967 lines as the basis of a Palestinian state; would deal with all core issues; and would not allow for any interim solutions before a final status agreement was signed.

A sign of progress in the talks will be if Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas decide to meet, despite the mutual distrust between the two leaders. Conventional wisdom holds that only the two leaders can decide on the painful compromises inherent in any final-status peace agreement. Such a meeting is a long way off and may never happen if there is no significant narrowing of the gaps on all the core issues.

It remains to be seen if and when US mediator Martin Indyk will present US bridging proposals.

Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo complained this week that Mr Indyk was absent from most of the initial discussions because the Israelis preferred the format of direct bilateral talks.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, was pessimistic over the chances of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough, arguing that the Palestinians are unlikely to agree to a number of elements considered essential by Israel: a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty; recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and a renunciation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel.