RAMALLAH, West Bank – Disagreements that blocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the past five years have not been fully resolved, despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent announcement of progress, and there's no clear path to a resumption of talks.
Palestinian officials said Sunday their key demand remains: Ahead of any talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must accept Israel's pre-1967 frontier as the starting point for drawing the border of a future state of Palestine. They say Kerry's renewed endorsement of that frontier as a baseline in closed-door talks is not enough, and that they need to hear from Netanyahu himself.
It's not clear if this amounts to last-minute maneuvering or if the Palestinians will walk away if Netanyahu refuses to accept that formula, as he has done repeatedly. On Sunday, Netanyahu's right-wing allies were adamant that Israel would not budge, and Netanyahu appeared to be trying to lower expectations about any future negotiations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is skeptical of Netanyahu's willingness to negotiate in good faith, suspecting the Israeli hard-liner is more interested in a peace "process" as an antidote to Israel's international isolation than in an actual deal.
Abbas has strong reasons to return to the table, however, even if it's not on his terms.
He can ill afford to rebuff the U.S. and Europe, the financial backers of his self-rule government, the perpetually cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. The talks envisioned by Kerry are to last for six to nine months, according to the Palestinians, rather than being open-ended, which would allow Abbas to argue he's simply testing Netanyahu's intentions. And so far, Abbas has not faced a backlash at home as he inches toward negotiations.
Abbas has not spoken publicly since Friday, when Kerry announced an agreement that "establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations" between the two sides. Kerry cautioned at the time that "the agreement is still in the process of being formalized."
On Sunday, Abbas' office tried to clamp down on official chatter, saying only two aides, Nabil Abu Rdeneh and Yasser Abed Rabbo, are authorized to speak about the diplomatic efforts. Neither was available.
However, two Palestinian officials and two senior PLO figures — speaking on condition of anonymity because they wanted to avoid running afoul of Abbas' edict — said a resumption of talks is not a done deal. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to meet in Washington in coming days or weeks, but they'll have to hold more talks about the talks, just as Kerry did in six shuttle missions this year because gaps remain, the Palestinian officials said.
Kerry gave Abbas a number of assurances on the terms for the negotiations, but failed to secure detailed Israeli commitments, the officials said. This includes the issue of the 1967 borders, the scope of a possible slowdown in settlement construction, and a timetable for the release of dozens of veteran Palestinian prisoners, held for attacks carried out before the start of intermittent peace talks in 1993.
In Cairo, the Arab League reiterated Sunday that negotiations must be based on the 1967 frontier and include a timeline, as well as the prisoner release. Without this, hopes for success are dim, said Mohammed Sabih, a top league official for Palestinian affairs. "It is certain that this (Israeli) government does not want a two-state solution but wants one Jewish state and the exclusion of the Palestinian side," he said in a statement.
In Israel, Netanyahu allies ruled out an endorsement of the 1967 lines or a slowdown in settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to nearly 600,000 Israelis.
Netanyahu emphasized the need to safeguard Israel's security and said any agreement would have to be approved in a national referendum. "It won't be easy. But we are entering the talks with integrity, honesty and hope that this process is handled responsibly, seriously and to the point," he said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu has repeatedly called for a resumption of talks without what he calls Palestinian "preconditions," such as a settlement freeze or recognition of the 1967 lines. Palestinians say the 1967 lines were the basis for talks in the past and that they need safeguards before entering into talks with Netanyahu, who adopted tougher starting positions than his predecessors.
A senior member in Netanyahu's coalition said Sunday that Israel has made no concessions so far.
"Insisting on our principles has paid off," Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a statement. "It was proven that when we insist, we can have negotiations without preconditions, without a (settlement) freeze and definitely without the bizarre demand to negotiate based on the 1967 borders."
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told The Associated Press that it would be a mistake to enter negotiations based on the Palestinian demands. Danon said he opposes any release of veteran Palestinian prisoners.
He said Netanyahu is to brief ministers Monday about Kerry's mission, but that so far, he has not heard the prime minister speak about a possible recognition of the 1967 borders as a baseline.
For Israel, one of the main benefits of resuming negotiations is that it removes, at least temporarily, the threat of unilateral Palestinian action at the United Nations.
Last year, the General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, enabling the Palestinians to seek membership in U.N. institutions and possibly taking their complaints over Israeli settlement-building on occupied land to the International Criminal Court. Abbas has said he would hold off in the event talks with Israel resume.
In the end, Abbas will likely opt for negotiations to avoid a risky confrontation with the U.S. that could spell the end of his Palestinian Authority, analysts said. "Abbas is going for talks with Israel to avoid the U.S. blame, because he couldn't move against its (Washington's) will," predicted George Giacaman, a political scientist in the West Bank.
Karin Laub, chief correspondent for the Palestinian territories, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987. Mohammed Daraghmeh has reported from Ramallah since 1996. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.