Former justice minister Haim Ramon of Kadima met earlier this month with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in an attempt to convince him to refuse direct Middle East peace talks, Israel Radio on Thursday quoted a source as saying.
The two met at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem on July 8 . The source wholeaked news of their talks to Israel Radio said he happened to be in the hotel for a separate meeting, and was close enough to hear every detail of the conversation.
According to the source, Ramon told Erekat that he had been sent as an emissary of President Shimon Peres. Erekat was surprised by that piece of information, said the source, adding that Ramon confirmed he was indeed a third party in the matter.
Ramon reportedly proceeded to tell Erekat that the Palestinians must not enter direct negotiations with Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would inevitably refuse any demands posed to him.
The source said that Ramon offered Erekat "proof" during their conversation that direct talks would be a waste of time, and that the Palestinians would never receive anything in return from Israel.
Peres' bureau confirmed that the president had met with Ramon for lunch a day earlier, on July 7, and that the former minister had informed him about the planned meeting with Erekat.
But the president denied that he had sent Ramon to persuade Erekat to refuse direct negotiations, adding that he had in fact implored the minister to do just the opposite. The president's bureau added that Peres did not need a mediator to meet with the Palestinian negotiator on his behalf.
Ramon confirmed that he had indeed met Erekat, but downplayed the significance of their conversation. "I have been meeting occasionally with Palestinian leaders for many years," he said, adding: "This is nothing new."
The former minister also said that the views he presented during those meetings were exactly the same as those he shares with Israeli media, denying any clandestine nature of the July 8 talks.
Erekat responded to the report by saying he did not discuss private meetings with the media.
Peres is scheduled to discuss the efforts to revive direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday, a spokeswoman from Peres' office in Jerusalem confirmed.
The two will meet privately before attending a lunch hosted by Mubarak. The parley is scheduled one day before Peres' 87th birthday.
Israel Radio quoted senior Israeli officials as saying that Mubarak understands the coming months are critical for the future of the peace process. Indeed, the four months allocated to U.S.-mediated indirect "proximity" talks will end in September, as will a partial 10-month moratorium on Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in Cairo on Thursday to brief
an Arab League committee dealing with the peace process, has said he sees no justification for starting direct talks without any progress made in the indirect ones mediated by U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
Abbas is, however, under heavy American and European pressure. Washington and Europe want direct negotiations to start before the partial settlement freeze expires on September 26.
Netanyahu told visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos he would not be able to extend the settlement moratorium because that would bring down his coalition.
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