International Envoys Seek to Restart Mideast Talks

JERUSALEM -- International mediators sat down with Palestinian and Israeli officials in Jerusalem on Wednesday in the hope of finding a formula to restart deadlocked peace talks.

But in a telling commentary on the beleaguered state of peacemaking, they huddled separately with officials from each side and will not be meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The mission by the Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators comes after the Palestinians asked the United Nations last month to recognize an independent state of Palestine. The request defied a U.S.-led effort to block the move, which is under review at the U.N. Security Council.

Immediately after the statehood application was submitted, the Quartet -- representing the U.S., European Union, Russia and U.N. -- called for a resumption of peace talks in a month, with the ambitious goal of reaching a peace agreement by late 2012.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he had no expectations that peace talks could be moved forward.

The Palestinians rejected a Quartet proposal to have Erekat meet face to face with Israeli official Yitzhak Molcho.

Palestinians refuse to resume direct talks until Israel agrees to freeze construction on captured lands the Palestinians claim for a future state. They also want to base talks on the contours of a future Palestinian state on lines Israel held before capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.

"We explained to the Quartet that we are prepared to sit at the negotiating table as soon as the Israeli government freezes all settlement construction and accepts clear terms of reference, specifically the 1967 borders," Erekat said. "Anything short of that will simply put us back on the failed track that we have been on for the last 20 years."

Israel rejects both conditions. It still occupies east Jerusalem and the West Bank. It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls its land crossings between Israel and Gaza and maintains a naval blockade on the territory, which is controlled by anti-Israel Hamas militants.

Israel says it is prepared to sit down with the Palestinians at any time, but only without conditions. Palestinians are skeptical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to peacemaking because of hard-line positions he has taken, including his opposition to partitioning Jerusalem.

"Israel welcomed the call by the Quartet for the immediate resumption of direct peace talks without preconditions. We are ready. We hope today's talks in Jerusalem will facilitate an early resumption of direct talks," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "Ultimately it's high time the Palestinians stop boycotting the peace talks and return to the negotiating table. How do they expect to solve problems unless they're willing to talk about those problems?"

Shortly before Wednesday's meetings with Quartet envoys, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his position that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was "one of the major obstacles to peace" and that his resignation would be a "blessing."

Erekat told Army Radio, following its interview with Lieberman, that the Israeli foreign minister was "inciting" against the Palestinian leader and that his comments were tantamount to an assassination call.

"Lieberman's gangland politics have no place in the 21st century," Erekat said.

Regev had no immediate comment when asked if Lieberman's remarks reflected his personal opinion or government policy.

Peace talks stalled three years ago, then resumed for a brief three weeks in September 2010 before collapsing after a 10-month Israeli settlement construction slowdown expired.