With Secretary of State John Kerry set to arrive in the Middle East this week to try again to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, there were reports that both sides were taking steps to do just that.
Media reports said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might agree to enter talks but only for a limited time to gauge Israel’s willingness to compromise on crucial issues, including Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees.
And reports suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might release as many as 120 Palestinians held prisoner for more than 20 years and to officially freeze new construction outside of the main settlement blocs; there has been a de facto freeze since January in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In comments Tuesday, Netanyahu said his goal was not just to restart talks but to continue them for as long as it takes to “grapple with all the issues and come to an agreement ….” He said his concern was that Abbas would walk away from the table soon after arriving, just as he did in 2010 and again during low-level talks in 2012.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv cited Western diplomats as saying that Abbas was willing to give up his precondition of restarting talks based on Israel’s 1967 border. In that way, both sides would not appear to backing down — Abbas could claim credit for the prisoner release and Netanyahu could claim the prisoner release was a gesture to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also expressed pleasure this week with the decision of the European Union not to issue a statement critical of Israel, saying its release now would undermine Kerry’s peace efforts by helping convince the Palestinians that Europe is with them even if they walked out on talks.
And at the dedication of a West Bank elementary school this week, Netanyahu was quoted as saying Israelis were there to “deepen our roots.” A West Bank Israeli leader reportedly told him: “Remember that peace does not mean displacement, peace does not mean the theft of a home or of a young person’s childhood.”
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