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Date posted: May 25, 2013
By Vita Bekker

A senior Palestinian official yesterday expressed pessimism about returning to negotiations with Israel as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, continued his efforts to revive the deadlocked peace process.

Hanan Ashrawi, an official on the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, said that the Palestinians were "sceptical" Israel would agree to stop settlement activity to resume talks.

"It would be difficult to see a breakthrough unless the US takes a stand on the fact that the occupation cannot continue and to come up with an effective plan that has a clear time frame for negotiations," she said.

Her remarks came after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and Mr Kerry, who has made four visits to the region since taking office in February, met in Ramallah yesterday.

Mr Kerry held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday in a bid to return the two sides to negotiations that collapsed in late 2010 following a dispute over the building of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr Kerry has pushed for the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 plan that offers full Arab recognition of Israel if it were to give up the occupied territories, as a framework for new talks. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has so far steered clear of Mr Kerry's proposal.

A top Israeli official yesterday also indicated that Mr Kerry's efforts would be challenged by some members of the predominantly right-wing Israeli government who oppose Palestinian statehood.

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister and a centrist political figure charged with leading negotiations with the Palestinians, told an Israeli radio station that "there are ideological differences at the heart of the government" on the Palestinian issue.

Suggesting that settlers and their supporters in the government were taking advantage of the stalemate to expand settlements, she added that the lack of negotiations "only serves the interests of those who think that each passing day allows them to build a new house".

Mr Kerry himself yesterday conceded that his peace efforts faced scepticism on both sides. Speaking before a meeting in Jerusalem with Mr Netanyahu, he said: "I know this region well enough to know that there is scepticism. In some corridors, there is cynicism. And there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment."

Still, he added, there have been "very serious" meetings and discussions. Indicating he wanted to make progress on issues such as addressing Israel's security concerns regarding Palestinian statehood, he said that US General John Allen, who had US and Nato forces in Afghanistan until February, was also "already here on the ground, working with his counterparts on the issues of security".

Mr Kerry appeared to be pushing for gestures from both sides.

On Monday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinians had done all the legal work needed to join 63 United Nations agencies but were holding off on applying to give Mr Kerry's peace efforts a chance. Mr Erekat said that "there is a good opportunity now" for an attempt at restarting talks.

In November, the Palestinians angered Israel and the US after a successful diplomatic campaign resulted in the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voting to upgrade their UN status to a non-member observer state.

Some Israeli media reported this month that Mr Netanyahu had implemented a partial freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want for a future state along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

However, Hagit Ofran, an activist with the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, which tracks settlement activity, said "there is no freeze that we can report".

"The construction on the ground continues, the promotion of building plans in settlements continues, and the government recently announced to the supreme court that it plans to legalise four unauthorised settlements."

According to Ms Ofran, the Israeli government had not issued new tenders since taking power in March, but such a lull in issuing tenders is "not rare" and actions on the ground pointed to continued expansion of settlements, which Peace Now said occupy 9 per cent of West Bank territory.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said there was no "sufficient basis of agreement between the two sides to restart negotiations" and that conditions were "not ripe for serious talks".

At least partly, he added, that is because the predominantly right-wing government of Mr Netanyahu was unlikely to "come close" to an offer that had been made by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister from 2006 to 2009, to the Palestinians in 2008.

In 2011, Mr Olmert publicly disclosed that his offer to Mr Abbas included Israel keeping at least 5.9 per cent of the West Bank on which settlements were built, sharing Jerusalem - with the disputed city's holy sites to be overseen by a multinational committee, and allowing a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel while compensating the rest. Mr Abbas never made a concrete response to the offer, according to news reports, and peacemaking attempts were in any case derailed when Israel launched its onslaught on Gaza a few weeks later in December 2008.

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Source: The National
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