Mideast Peace Talks Resume Amid Tough Words

Oren Dorell,USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting Tuesday at the State Department to discuss how to proceed with peace talks for the first time in three years, but already acrimony is swirling around them.

Secretary of State John Kerry has said leaders from both sides have pledged to keep the substance and terms of the talks secret, but on Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Egyptian journalists that he expects an exodus of Israeli civilians and forces from all territory seized in 1967.

"In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli - civilian or soldier - on our lands," Abbas said during a visit with Adly Mansour, Egypt's interim president, according to the Jerusalem Post.

He said he would accept an international, multinational presence similar to United Nations peacekeeper operations in the Sinai, Lebanon and Syria.

Abbas' words were picked up by Israeli and Jewish media. New York-based The Jewish Press referred to his plan as "Judenrein," the Nazi goal of cleansing the land of Jews in the West Bank, which the paper referred to by its Biblical names.

"As far as Abbas is concerned, there is no way the Jewish settlements of Judea and Samaria that happen to remain on the wrong side of the new border could apply for Palestinian citizenship," the Jewish Press said.

Abbas said he considers settlements illegal and would not allow illegal residents to remain in a future Palestinian state. By talking about his goals, however, Abbas seemed to contradict the secrecy Kerry has said is necessary for talks to succeed.

When he announced July 19 that talks would resume, Kerry said, "The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private. "

Israel, a country of 8 million, allows more than 1.6 million Arabs, many of whom call themselves Palestinians, to reside in Israel including in the capital of Jerusalem. Arab citizens have the same rights as Jews in Israel.

Abbas' words do not contradict the secrecy Kerry has said is necessary for talks to succeed, said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"What is going on secretly is the give and take between (the negotiators themselves) but in the meantime both political leaders have distanced themselves to a certain extent from the process," Schanzer said. "They've created a little distance on purpose, they crafted it this way, so the discussions can continue to take place while (Istraeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and Abbas can continue to make statements to placate their opposition and reassure their supporters."

Abbas' statement is similar to what Palestinian leaders have said for decades, and while an obvious reference to settlements it also disregards "that there could be Jews who would prefer to remain in the West Bank after an agreement because of their Bibilical ties to the land," Schanzer said. "The idea there would be an expulsion is troubling and even more troubling when you consider the Israelis have a 20% minority Arab Israelis within Israel."

And Abbas signaling that "there won't be a quid pro quo here" could threaten the eventual outcome of the talks, Schanzer said.

"At the end of the process, Mahmoud Abbas has to sign (any agreement), and if he holds on to these ideas we're headed to a crisis," he said.

Ahead of the talks, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners.

On Monday, before the negotiators arrived in the United States, Kerry acknowledged that they were in for a difficult process.

"If it were easy, it would have happened a long time (ago)," he said. "It's no secret, therefore, that many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort."

He mentioned compromise a third time later in his short remarks.

Tuesday's talks are meant to set a framework for how the talks may proceed, the order in which the four or five "final status issues" - security, borders, Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and Israel's status as a Jewish homeland - will be addressed and who will be in the room when the talks proceed.

"At the moment you don't have an agreement to resume negotiations," said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and a former peace negotiator for Democratic and Republican administrations. Israeli and Palestinian teams came to Washington "to talk about how to resume negotiations."

Rather than talk hash out the issues right away, they'll be talking about whether they can agree on how to talk about them and about Palestinian demands for a construction freeze in settlements, and Palestinian pursuits against Israel in the United Nations and International Criminal Court, Miller said.

"They're going to be interested in is there a sustainable basis for negotiations," Miller said.


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