Friday, February 4, 2011

Mideast Quartet seeks to bridge widening gulf

JERUSALEM: The Middle East Quartet meets on Saturday in a bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks, as Israel fears for its peace treaty with Egypt and the Palestinians seek international recognition for statehood.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are to convene in Munich, Germany to help “find a solution to the present deadlock,” as Ashton has said.
Talks between Israel and the Palestinians, relaunched on September 2 after a long hiatus, fell apart weeks afterward after Israel refused to renew a temporary ban on building settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinian leadership refuses to resume negotiations as long as Israel builds on land wanted for a Palestinian state.
In an address to the Israeli parliament on Wednesday overshadowed by events in Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated a call to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to drop his demand for a freeze.
“I hope that president Abbas will regard the changes taking place in the region as an opportunity to sit down with us and discuss peace without preconditions,” Netanyahu said.
“It is possible, they say, that the gap between Israel and the Palestinians may be too wide to bridge. They might be right, but if we do not try, we will surely not succeed.”
He went on to criticise “unilateral measures” – a reference to Palestinian efforts to win the widest possible international recognition for a Palestinian state comprising the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat on Tuesday called on the Quartet to “take an historic decision to recognise the state of Palestine” based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In a statement on Thursday, prominent Palestinian parliamentarian Hanan Ashrawi appealed for “a qualitative shift in the way the Quartet does business.”
“It is far too late for the Quartet to simply issue statements without enactment or intervention, and to repeat the mantra of a return to bilateral negotiations,” she said.
Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee and former head of the armed forces, said uncertainty in Egypt added to the urgent need for accommodation with the Palestinians.
“Because of the strategic change in our region, we have to move forward with the Palestinians,” he said. Failure to do so, he said, could lead to an Israel that was “one state for two peoples, close to a new war with its neighbours.”
In the New York Times on Thursday, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “Netanyahu … is in danger of becoming the Mubarak of the peace process” – a reference to offering too little too late in the way of concessions.
“Israel has never had more leverage vis-a-vis the Palestinians and never had more responsible Palestinian partners,” Friedman said. “But Netanyahu has found every excuse for not putting a peace plan on the table.”
US President Barack Obama “should put his own peace plan on the table, bridging the Israeli and Palestinian positions, and demand that the two sides negotiate on it without any preconditions,” the journalist added.
Paris will host a new international donor conference in June for a Palestinian state, ministers from donor countries and the Quartet said following talks in the French capital on Thursday.
“At the request of the PA, a new international donors’ conference for the Palestinian State will be held in Paris in June 2011,” a statement released after the talks said.
The group also “call on Israel to take more ambitious, structural measures to continue to ease access and movement” of Palestinians.

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