The Palestinian leadership submitted a proposal to renew peace talks with Israel that drops their long-standing demand that Israel ceases all West Bank settlement construction, a top Israeli official said on Wednesday.
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According to officials with knowledge of the proposal, the Palestinian Authority informed the Quartet two weeks ago that it would renege on its demand for a settlement freeze if Israel releases 100 prisoners as a show of good will.
The prisoners in question are reportedly all veteran inmates, incarcerated in Israeli prisons since before the Oslo accords.
The Palestinian proposal was reputedly the result of heavy pressure applied by Quartet members – the United States, the European Union, Russian, and the United Nations – on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renew talks before January 26.
That date marks the expiration of the three months specified by a Quartet statement in September in which Israel and the Palestinians are to resume talks and present concrete proposals concerning issues such as borders and security arrangements.
Quartet officials – especially EU – made it clear to the Palestinians that they would bear equal responsibility in the event that the two sides would not resume talks by late January.
One Israeli official indicated that, in the current situation, January 26 has become the "new September" – alluding to the PA's September submitting of their UN statehood bid – adding that everyone was waiting to see what Abbas' next move will be.
"There's real concern in the Quartet that after that date Abbas will return to UN initiatives," the Israeli official said, adding that, at the same time, the Palestinian president will have to decide whether or not to proceed with the formation of a unity cabinet with Hamas.
With one month to the Quartet deadline, the two sides haven't even held predatory meetings that were supposed to take place two months ago, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser Yitzhak Molcho and top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were supposed to set the talks agenda.
The Israeli official indicated that Israel rejects the Palestinian offer for two reasons: 1) That is replaces one precondition with another, and 2) since officials say the Palestinian proposal is too vague and did not make it clear whether the prisoners' release will lead to full talks that would include meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas or just the preparatory sessions.
Israel fears that, upon the prisoners' release, and after a few early sessions, the Palestinians will announce new conditions or find new ways to stop negotiations.
It seems at least some of the Israeli trepidation is warranted, since the Palestinains refuse to call the move a "resumption of negotiations," rather defining it as the "talks' renewal," meant to define the guidelines for future peace talks.
In a comment later Wednesday, Erekat denied that the PA offered to resume talks pending a release of prisoners, adding that the Palestinians had no preconditions for peace negotiations.
"A freeze of settlement construction, holding negotiations based on the 1967 lines, and the release of prisoners are not preconditions but Israeli obligations, without which we can see no renewal of negotiations with Israel," the top Palestinian negotiator said.
News of the new PA proposal came after on Sunday, Netanyahu commented on the recent moves by Fatah and Hamas to set up a unity government, saying that Israel would not negotiate with the Palestinians should such a government be established.
"If Hamas joins the Palestinian government we will not hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority," said Netanyahu in a speech at a conference for Israeli ambassadors.
He added that he is ready to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas anytime, anywhere, in order to renew negotiations.
"The peace process can only advance while maintaining security arrangements, which is becoming more difficult in light of the current situation in the region," Netanyahu added.
Last week, Abbas met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Cairo and set the ground for Hamas to join the Palestine Liberation Organization. During the discussions, Hamas and Fatah decided to form a unity government by the end of January 2012, and that the Palestinian parliament, including both Fatah and Hamas legislators, will begin operating in February.