Middle East peace talks to begin next week
Five years of deadlock to end with Washington meeting between Israelis and Palestinians
A Jewish immigrant from North America kisses the ground after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. Some 231 Jews, including 106 children, from North America took a chartered flight by the Nefesh B’Nefesh organisation and arrived in Israel on Tuesday. The organisation helps Jewish immigrant families to relocate and find jobs in the country. Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters
Israeli and Palestinian officials will meet on Tuesday in Washington, ending five years of deadlock in the Middle East peace process.
The breakthrough was announced last week by US secretary of state John Kerry at the end of his sixth round of shuttle diplomacy in the region, but it was unclear when the first meeting would take place.
Since Mr Kerry’s announcement, a number of Palestinian officials warned that further assurances were required before the Washington meeting could take place, but Israel’s regional development minister Silvan Shalom, who met senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday, dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian no-show.
“It would be a slap in the face of the Americans and I don’t think that would happen,” Mr Shalom said. “When starting a process, there are always last-minutes difficulties.”
Two days before the Washington gathering, the Israeli government is expected to endorse a bill that will require a national referendum for any peace agreement that entails Israel conceding territory.
The referendum bill will be brought before the Knesset parliament on Wednesday for its first reading. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is considering bringing the measure for a second and final reading on the same day, enabling the bill to become law next week.
Such a parliamentary manoeuvre is extremely rare and followed threats by the right- wing Jewish Home coalition party that they would vote against the budget if there was no speedy progress on the referendum bill.
Israel has never held a referendum.
Because the legislation only deals with sovereign Israeli territory, it would not cover areas of the occupied West Bank that Israel may concede as part of a land-for-peace deal. It would, however, cover Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem which have been annexed by Israel.
However ministers from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said any West Bank territorial concessions would also need to be approved by the public.
Mr Netanyahu said decisions of such importance required a broad national consensus.
“Peace with our neighbours requires peace among ourselves and the way to ensure this is through a referendum,” he said.
Left-wing parties have criticised the idea of a referendum, terming it as an attempt by the right to place another obstacle on the road to peace.
The bill is also opposed by justice minister Tzipi Livni, who will head the Israeli negotiation team.
Earlier this week, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas also promised a referendum to approve any peace agreement reached with Israel.
The Washington talks will be mediated by American officials and conducted under a strict media blackout. Only the Americans will address the media and report on progress.
“It takes two to tango, but in the Middle East it takes three,” Mr Netanyahu said. “I hope there will be persistence in the goal to achieve peace that we can defend.”