U.S. efforts at extending Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations beyond the April 29 deadline have led to positive developments over the last 24 hours, according to high ranking officials in Jerusalem.
"There has been some progress in the talks, but no breakthrough," said an Israeli official. "There isn't an outline for a possible deal yet, and it's unclear if it's possible to reach a deal that would be acceptable on both sides.
U.S. envoy Martin Indyk met the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams on Thursday afternoon. High-ranking Israeli officials stated that the two sides were discussing an outline of the deal that fell through last week, though with various changes that take into account the Palestinians' requests to join 15 international treaties.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's team offered the sides to extend peace negotiations for another nine to 12 months, during which the Palestinians would promise not to turn to international institutions such as the United Nations. Under that deal, Israel would release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands (who were convicted of committing terrorist acts), as well as 400 other prisoners without blood on their hands. During that period Israel would also stop most settlement construction in the West Bank, and the United States would free Jewish-American spy Jonathan Pollard.
The senior Israeli official said that it's still unclear what changes have been made to the original outline, but that it will not be significantly different. The number of prisoners released might be lower, as a response to the Palestinians' request to join the UN treaties, according to the official.
In a press briefing on Thursday, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed there is progress in the talks, but stresses that a deal has yet to be reached. "Our teams remain in intense talks. The gaps are narrowing but any speculation on agreement to extend peace talks is premature."
Psaki added that Indyk will head to Washington for consultations and return to the region next week after Passover. Psaki also noted that reports about a deal that was reached were inaccurate.
Palestinians: If agreement exists, its between Israel, U.S.
Contrary to the reports coming from Israel, Palestinian officials are expressing pessimism on Thursday evening with regard to the ongoing negotiations. A senior Palestinian official told Haaretz that Israel is perpetuating the status quo binding the release of prisoners to commitments to continue negotiations, and that if such an agreement exists, it is merely between Israel and the U.S., not the Palestinians.
According to the same official, Palestinian leaders were stressing that without a clear outline that includes a freeze on settlement construction or recognition of the 1967 borders, no progress can be made in the coming months. Also, Palestinian leadership believes that any agreement to release prisoners in exchange for the release of Jonathan Pollard, does not advance the negotiations with regard to the central issues of settlements and borders.
"We reiterate that the Palestinian position is that negotiations should continue, but that in order for this process to continue, there needs to be a clear, defined time frame for the negotiations to end, and they must bring about a real result, which would be the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders," the Palestinian official told Haaretz. "The Israelis are engaging in negotiations over continuing the process, as if the goal is the process itself, rather than what the process is supposed to create. Therefore, as long as there is no agreement on the central issues which are freezing settlement construction or recognizing the borders, there is nowhere to advance, and no reason for optimism."
Palestinians join Geneva Convention
The Swiss foreign ministry said on Thursday that it had received the Palestinian request to join the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Swiss added that Palestinian membership will enter effective immediately.
United Nations Secretary of General Ban Ki-moon signed late Wednesday the official documents indicating that he had begun processing the Palestinians' request to join the international conventions under the auspices of the UN. In the documents, the UN chief wrote that the State of Palestine would be added to the conventions on May 2.
It is still not clear whether the government of Holland, which sponsors The Hague convention, will follow suit in publishing a statement.
The UN's announcement follows Israel's decision a day earlier to impose sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in response to Abbas' bid to join the international conventions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered all government ministries not to hold high-ranking meetings with Palestinian officials, excluding the peace negotiations and security cooperation.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with foreign ministers from Arab nations on Wednesday, and returned with commitments for continued support of negotiations, as long as they are run according to clear principles, time limits, and that they remain focused on the core issues and the creation of a Palestinian state within 67 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.
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