By Ali Sawafta and Allyn Fisher-Ilan
RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Palestinians played down on Monday the significance of an imminent meeting in Washington of their top peace envoy with his Israeli counterpart, saying formal negotiation would not begin unless their opening terms were satisfied.
The Palestinian position seemed to run counter to U.S. hopes that bringing together Saeb Erekat and Israel’s Tzipi Livni in the coming days would kick-start peacemaking stalled for almost three years over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In another setback to the negotiators’ meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned first to seek cabinet-level approval for the prospective new talks, which were announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday.
At the time, Kerry, winding up months of intensive and discreet mediation, predicted Erekat and Livni would join him in Washington “to begin initial talks within the next week or so”.
But that appeared unlikely as Netanyahu, facing skepticism within his rightist governing coalition at the diplomatic drive, wanted to await the next full sitting of his cabinet on July 28 or possibly an earlier session of the smaller security cabinet.
“It looks like negotiations will begin only next week, not this week,” an Israeli official said late on Sunday, disclosing Netanyahu’s plans to win over recalcitrant ministers.
Netanyahu says the new talks must be held without “preconditions”, especially regarding the borders of the state Palestinians want to found in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Israel deems all of Jerusalem its undivided capital – a status not accepted internationally – and wants to keep swathes of West Bank settlements under any eventual peace accord.
Yet the Palestinians insist no negotiations can be held until all sides agree the pre-1967 borders would be their basis.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said Erekat had yet to be invited to Washington. When he goes, Abu Rdaineh said, it would be first to determine the framework of any future negotiations.
“If they reach an agreement over the details, in accordance to the Palestinian demands, then the launch of negotiations will be announced,” Abu Rdaineh told Reuters on Monday.
He said that those demands, relayed by Abbas to Kerry, included Israel’s recognition that the two-state solution was predicated on the 1967 borders, and clarifications about its planned release of Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture.
Even the latter was dogged with dispute, however.
Israel said that, starting in September, it would free 82 Palestinians jailed before 1993, when the sides signed interim peace accords. But Qadoura Fares of the Palestinian Prisoners Club said Abbas wanted 103 long-serving inmates released.
Interviewed by Jordan’s Al-Rai newspaper, Abbas said Kerry had “taken our proposal regarding the resumption of the peace process with him” to Washington.
Abbas held out the possibility that, should diplomacy remain mired, Palestinians, defying pressure by Israel and the Obama administration – would again appeal to the United Nations at its annual assembly in September to support their borders claim.
Denouncing the West Bank settlements as illegal – a view shared by most world powers – Abbas told Al-Rai that Israel should “get out of Palestinian land completely” though he voiced willingness to find a formula addressing its security concerns.
A major focus of these is Gaza, which is now under the control of armed Hamas Islamists who spurn coexistence with the Jewish state, question Abbas’ authority, and enjoy grassroots support among some Palestinians in the West Bank.
Alluding to the risk of Abbas’ U.S.-backed administration one day falling to Hamas, Netanyahu has said revived peacemaking could prevent the emergence of a West Bank “terror state”.
Opinion polls suggest narrow majorities among Palestinians and Israelis for the two-state solution, and both Abbas and Netanyahu plans to put any eventual peace accord to referendums.
Even in the absence of a deal, Netanyahu sees value in the effort as “a strategic process to tighten relations with the United States”, the Israeli official on condition of anonymity.
According to the official, Netanyahu would, in convening Israeli ministers on the talks, emphasize the importance of sticking close to Washington to cope with the overarching threats posed by Iran’s disputed nuclear program and by spreading strife in Syria and Egypt.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)