A US announcement that Middle East peace talks are to resume, possibly as early as next week, was met Sunday with a wall of scepticism from Israeli officials and commentators.
Analysts said the negotiations, announced on Friday by US Secretary of State John Kerry, were doomed to fail, while cabinet ministers and senior officials reacted with caution and even outright opposition to the plan.
“Such talks were held 21 years ago. They failed utterly,” wrote Nahum Barnea, right-leaning columnist for top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot.
“Negotiations aren’t a goal,” he continued. “They are just a means. The way in which Kerry is dealing with the conflict will almost certainly lead to yet another failure, and the resulting crash.”
The centre-right Maariv daily agreed: “(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu … got a process with no peace right from the start; no negotiations based on the 1967 borders with a land swap… (and) no freeze of the settlements,” it said in an editorial.
Palestinians have long demanded that peace talks be based on the 1967 lines that existed before Israel occupied the West Bank, and have stressed that settlement building in the territory must be frozen before they would resume talks.
Israel has insisted that there be no such “preconditions”.
The exact basis for Kerry’s plan remains unknown, but commentators thought it unlikely agreement would already have been reached on such sensitive issues.
“The gap between the objectives of the two sides is unfathomable; mutual suspicion runs high… at the moment there are no conditions pushing the sides… toward painful concessions,” Barnea wrote.
Kerry has given away very little detail of the agreement, which came after months of intense consultations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, beyond saying both sides had reached “an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations”.
Due to the lack of detail about the peace talks, speculation is swirling as to how exactly Kerry managed to convince the two sides to agree to come together.
“There is no Israeli declaration that the basis for the talks is the 1967 borders, there is no freeze of construction in any kind in (the West Bank), and there is no prisoner release before the talks begin,” Yediot quoted an Israeli official as saying.
Maariv reported that Netanyahu might have agreed to an “unofficial” settlement freeze.
And many media outlets latched onto and fiercely criticised the planned release of Palestinian prisoners — announced on Saturday by Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz as a “gesture” towards the peace talks — with some rumouring it could happen at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“Veteran terrorists will go home,” said a Maariv editorial.
Comment from high-ranking Israeli officials appeared to justify the commentators’ cynicism.
“I am against a Palestinian state,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, told AFP on his way into a cabinet meeting.
“I can (only) support starting talks that are not preconditioned on the 1967 borders or a settlement freeze,” he said.
Steinitz, before the same meeting, said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas “doesn’t seem eager to negotiate, or strong and determined enough to make the concessions necessary from the Palestinian side.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel told Maariv he opposed a settlement freeze.
“I will not lend a hand to an immoral and non-Jewish act that will enable a construction freeze in Jerusalem and in the settlements,” he said in reference to occupied east Jerusalem, even vowing to ensure more settlements were built.
The Palestinians too remained cautious.
Chief negotiator Saeb Erakat — who will travel to Washington to begin talks with his Israeli counterpart Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — told Maariv that neither side had yet received the promised invite from Washington.
He added that the US had still not “relayed clear answers to basic questions such as the 1967 borders, construction in the settlements and a prisoner release. It is too early to declare any progress.”
Former negotiator Uri Savir, who led Israel’s team at the talks leading up to the 1993 Oslo Accord, told BBC radio on Sunday that he thinks the planned talks do indeed have merit.
“I think they will (achieve something),” he said.
“One should not look only at the starting point and the very end point of a permanent status peace agreement.”
He likened Kerry’s efforts to those of “Superman”.
“He conducted something that nobody has achieved in three years, which is to bring the sides to talk to each other directly.”
“This is quite an achievement.”