A high-ranking Palestinian delegation visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the first significant public meeting between the sides since January. The Palestinian officials, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and head of Palestinian Authority (PA) General Intelligence Majad Faraj, gave Netanyahu a letter from PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is set to respond with an Israeli letter in two weeks.
The meeting between the Palestinians, Netanyahu and his envoy Yitzhak Molcho lasted for more than an hour, according to an anonymous Israeli official who spoke with The Mideast Update. The official declined to share the details of the discussion, aside from saying that Netanyahu “reiterated his commitment to peace and reconciliation and said that he will be responding to the Palestinian president’s letter with a letter of his own.”
The anonymous official did note that he is hopeful this will jumpstart the stalled Middle East peace process. “We regret the situation that we have not been able to engage with the Palestinians directly,” he said. “We think that’s been unfortunate and we hope that will change.”
The two sides met in Jordan in January in sessions intended to set the stage for a resumption of peace talks that were suspended by the Palestinians in 2010. However, the Jordan discussions ultimately collapsed, according to reports.
Netanyahu’s office said in a press release that after Tuesday’s meeting the sides agreed to release a statement: “Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to achieving peace… Both sides hope that this exchange of letters will help find a way to advance peace.”
The WAFA Palestinian news agency reported that Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio that the Palestinian letter mentioned multiple matters in the peace process, including Israeli settlement construction. The Palestinians have held a long-standing precondition that Israel halt settlement construction before direct peace talks can resume.
Israel instituted an unprecedented partial freeze of settlement construction in 2009 for 10 months. The Palestinians finally agreed to resume direct negotiations towards the end of that period, before calling off the talks when the moratorium was not extended past its original deadline.
The Israeli official told The Mideast Update that they are currently reviewing the Palestinian letter.
He said their own letter is not yet written, but he felt there is good reason to believe the essence of the letter could contain that Israel is willing to “start negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions,” that in the framework of those peace talks “all the core issues can be on the table,” that Israel is “willing to move forward on the outline that was presented” by the Mideast Quartet at the end of last year and that “we want to meet and we want to move this process forward.”
The Quartet—consisting of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations—laid out a plan in 2011 that called for a peace agreement by the end of 2012. However, the steps towards that goal outlined by the Quartet’s proposal have only been partially met.
WAFA reported that Erekat clarified that the meeting with Netanyahu did not constitute a return to negotiations, but was intended just to pass on Abbas’ letter. Erekat also said that the Palestinians intend to return to diplomatic efforts to gain statehood recognition outside the peace process if Israel’s response to the letter is negative.
The Palestinians attempted to gain United Nations’ membership last year, but that ultimately bogged down in the UN Security Council due to concerns, particularly from the United States, that the step would harm the peace process.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, April 18, 2012)