Palestinians insist ‘no talks in any format’ 16Dec10 December 18, 2010

Middle East Online -  16 December 2010

RAMALLAH – The Palestinians on Thursday said they would not hold any form of talks with Israel, in any format, without a complete halt to settlement activity.

Their tough stance came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner council met to discuss US ideas on the peace process and a top American envoy held talks with Israeli defence officials.

“There will not be any negotiations with Israel, in any form — direct, indirect or parallel — without an end to settlement,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior member of the central committee of Fatah, the secular party of president Mahmud Abbas.

Arab League foreign ministers on Wednesday had ruled out a resumption of negotiations without a “serious offer” that would ensure their success.

Ahmad called on Washington to officially declare its definition of the Palestinian territories to include all the lands occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

And he urged the Obama administration to state its official position on security and borders.

“We are starting to find that the American position on these issues is confused,” he said.

Earlier this week, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell held talks with Netanyahu and Abbas to try to find a way to keep the sides engaged in the search for peace.

He proposed six weeks of “parallel” talks, in which negotiators would hold separate discussions with the Americans in a format that would not be classed as “negotiations,” a Palestinian official said on Wednesday.

In his talks with Abbas, Mitchell suggested that in the six weeks starting from Sunday, the two sides meet US officials to discuss security, border arrangements and any other issues raised by the parties.

Asked whether Israel would consider such a parallel format, an Israeli official said they were “open” to the idea.

“We obviously prefer direct talks with the Palestinians, but because they are steadfast in their refusal to engage directly over the issues … that is something to which we are open,” he said.

There was no immediate word on the content of Netanyahu’s talks with his Forum of Seven, although a government official confirmed they had met.

Meanwhile, Dennis Ross, a senior advisor to US President Barack Obama, held talks in Tel Aviv with top defence officials, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, military Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi and the head of military intelligence, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi.

“During the talks they discussed the security aspects of a possible peace agreement with the Palestinians,” Barak’s office said.

The peace process was thrown into disarray last week after Washington acknowledged it had failed in to persuade Israel to renew restrictions on settlement construction.

US officials are now trying to find new ways for both sides to engage in some form of talks.

Following the Arab League meeting, Arab and Palestinian officials were likely to step up their efforts in coming days to secure further recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, Ahmad said.

On Wednesday, Abbas held a phone conversation with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who confirmed La Paz would be recognising a Palestinian state “in the coming days,” the Fatah official said.

Over the past few weeks, Palestinian officials have been talking up their options if peace talks with Israel totally collapse — one of which is seeking recognition for a unilateral declaration of statehood.

Earlier this month, Brazil and Argentina recognised a Palestinian state, with Uruguay soon to follow suit. And this week, European Union also expressed “its readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state.”

Israel opposes such a move, saying a Palestinian state should be established only through negotiations.

Shortly after the Cairo talks, the US House of Representatives approved a measure condemning any recognition of a Palestinian state, and backing a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The European Union also issued a new plea to speed up progress towards a two-state solution encompassing a “viable” Palestine alongside a “secure” Israel.

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