RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinians believe the U.S. effort to restart peace talks is doomed, and they're preparing instead to resume their campaign of seeking membership in key international organizations as soon as next month, officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives on another peace mission, Israel and the Palestinians appear to be as divided as ever over the issue of Israeli settlement building. Without major U.S. pressure on Israel, Palestinians believe the outlook seems bleak.
Kerry's arrival Thursday is the latest in a series of meetings with Israelis and Palestinians over the past two months aimed at getting them back to the negotiating table.
While Palestinians praised Kerry's efforts, they said there has been little progress ahead of what they believe to be a June 7 deadline and said they are already beginning work on a "day-after" strategy.
"We don't have unrealistic expectations. We know the immensity of obstacles," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official. "If it doesn't work, of course we have our own plans."
Peace negotiations broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled since then, in large part due to disputes over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim both areas, as well as the Gaza Strip, for their future state, and say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Palestinians say that makes it increasingly difficult to share the land with Israel. Israel captured all three territories in 1967, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, dismantling its 21 settlements there.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction and accept the pre-1967 lines as the basis of a future border. While previous Israeli leaders have used the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks that failed to produce an accord, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he took a tough line against the settlements and prodded Israel into a partial construction freeze. A short-lived round of negotiations quickly collapsed, and Israel refused to extend the freeze. Obama similarly tried unsuccessfully to press Israel into accepting the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks.
Fed up with the impasse and disillusioned with Obama, the Palestinians last fall won recognition from the U.N. General Assembly as a nonmember state, an upgraded diplomatic status that gives them access to key U.N. bodies. The U.S. was one of just eight countries that sided with Israel in opposing the bid.
Israel fears the Palestinians will now seek membership in international agencies to promote an anti-Israel agenda. Its biggest concern is that the Palestinians will try to join the International Criminal Court and press war crimes charges against Israel.
Since taking office this year, Kerry has devoted substantial efforts toward finding a formula to restart negotiations. He is working on a package that would include economic incentives to the Palestinians and confidence-building measures by both sides. In a significant breakthrough, Kerry recently persuaded the 22-member Arab League to renew a decade-old peace offer to Israel, with new incentives aimed at making it more attractive to Israel.
Economic development is a key aspect of Palestinian state building, and the president of the Palestinian national investment fund, Mohammed Mustafa, said hopes are high for Kerry in that regard.
In an interview, Mustafa said the Palestinian economy is in a dire state, with the government $3 billion in debt and unemployment at 23 percent. Among Palestinians ages 20 to 24, the unemployment rate is 40 percent.
"We can't continue like this," he said. "We need an urgent solution."
The Palestinians have long complained that Israeli control over the West Bank has stifled their economy with military checkpoints, travel restrictions and limits on development.
Mustafa said he has presented development proposals to Kerry, including the creation of tourism projects on the Dead Sea, an industrial park and construction of a new Palestinian city. He claimed that foreign investors are prepared to invest, and that the projects could create tens of thousands of jobs.
"I told Kerry that talking about an independent state requires building the economy," he said. "If Kerry's efforts get these projects approved, they will create huge economic gains. But so far there is no indication from the Israeli side."
Palestinian officials said, however, that even the most ambitious economic projects are no substitute for a serious diplomatic process. They say they will not give up their demand that Israel stop building settlements on occupied land.
"Kerry's plan should be a comprehensive one, not just economic and confidence-building measures and security, but also political and legal," Ashrawi said.
Without a breakthrough in the coming weeks, she said the Palestinians have plans to join international organizations. "That would enable us not just to curb Israeli violations, but also to hold Israel accountable," she said.
Palestinian officials say that Kerry has given them a June 7 deadline for finding a framework for talks. American officials say they have never set a formal deadline for Mideast peace talks resuming or any other benchmark being reached.
Concerned that the international community might blame them for the standstill, Palestinian officials are planning a public relations offensive and diplomatic meetings around the world.
Their main points will be to claim their willingness to compromise, based on a 25-year-old policy of recognizing Israel along the 1967 lines, their commitments to meeting past obligations and their acceptance of the renewed Arab peace initiative.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined comment ahead of Kerry's visit.
Zalman Shoval, an unofficial adviser to the prime minister, said it is the Palestinians who are preventing peace talks from resuming. "The Palestinians unfortunately created a situation from the very beginning that Secretary Kerry's initiative has no chance at the present time," Shoval said.
He said Israel and the U.S share the view that negotiations should begin without preconditions, but the Palestinians are refusing to resume talks unless their demands are met first.