Ashton to meet Abbas in effort to extend peace talks


EUROPEAN UNION foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is engaged in a last-ditch effort to keep Israeli and Palestinian officials engaged as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas announced that the current exploratory peace talks had run their course.

Baroness Ashton will today meet Mr Abbas in the Jordanian capital, Amman, after holding talks in Jerusalem last night with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. She urged the sides to keep talking beyond today’s deadline set by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators for both sides to present details on security arrangements and borders, two of the core issues to be thrashed out in a comprehensive peace deal.

Baroness Ashton, who arrived in the region on Tuesday for a three-day visit, said the aim of her trip was to encourage the sides to keep talking in the hope that the contacts will develop into substantive negotiations. “I am a realist about where we are but I am a passionate believer that we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations,” she told reporters yesterday in Gaza.

Officials confirmed that Baroness Ashton was trying to put together a package of Israeli incentives to persuade the Palestinians to remain in the talks, but Israel refused a Palestinian demand to release a number of prominent prisoners, including Fatah West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, the former head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Ahead of today’s meeting with Baroness Ashton, Mr Abbas indicated that yesterday’s informal talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Amman – the fifth round of discussions in recent weeks – would be the last. He said he intended to consult with the Arab League on February 4th on the future of the peace process.

After talks yesterday with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Mr Abbas said the Palestinians would resume talks only if Israel recognised the borders of a Palestinian state. “If the borders are set it’s possible to return to negotiations, but the Israelis do not want established borders,” he said.

Direct bilateral negotiations ended in September 2010 when Israel refused a Palestinian demand to extend a West Bank settlement freeze. Last October, representatives of the quartet, comprised of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, in an effort to break the impasse urged the sides to present detailed plans on security and borders within three months. However, the informal contacts in Jordan, described by both sides as “talks about talks”, failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Mr Abbas argued that without an Israeli settlement freeze there was no point in returning to negotiations. Israeli officials claimed that the future of settlements should be one of the items to be decided during the negotiations.

Mr Lieberman, during his talks with Baroness Ashton, called on the EU to condemn the Jerusalem mufti for his recitation of an Islamic hadiththat called the “killing of Jews” a “sacred goal”.