Israeli, Palestinian Officials Hold Secret Meeting Amid Stall in Peace Talks

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is trying to convince Israel to set a meeting between a top PA delegation and PM Netanyahu, where Palestinian demands for continued talks will be presented.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are at a complete standstill, with relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaching a newfound low. And yet, contacts have been held behind the scenes in the last two weeks between officials from both Jerusalem and Ramallah, over the missive Abbas plans to send Netanyahu in the coming days.

Last week, Haaretz has learned, a secret meeting was held between the top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat and Netanyahu's emissary Isaac Molho. While the two hold occasional phone conversations, last week's session was the first meeting between the two officials in two and a half months.

From left, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May.Credit: AP

Erekat and Molcho's latest meeting was held on January 25, just 24 hours before the Palestinian deadline for low-level which were held at the time in Ammad, under the auspices of the Quartet and Jordanian King Abdullah II. Since then, the diplomatic process has again hit a snag.

In the meeting, Erekat relayed the content of the letter Abbas intends to pass on to Netanyahu in the coming days. The missive, which at first included ultimatums as well as threats to dismantle the PA, has been tempered and modified due to, among other reasons, intense U.S. pressure. The wording Erekat showed Molho in their meeting did not include such threat.

In addition, Erekat requested that Molho set a date for a meeting between Netanyahu and a senior Palestinian delegation, in which the letter will be presented. That delegation is expected to be headed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who may be joined by Muhammad Ashtiyeh, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Molho did not respond to Erekat's request in the negative, saying that he would have to look into that possibility. The two are expected to meet again this week.

Abbas himself said in Cairo on Monday that the letter would include the demand that Israel recognize that negotiations will be held based on the 1967 borders and that it announced a settlement construction freeze.

"We succinctly wrote to Netanyahu that he emptied the Palestinian Authority form content and authorities," Abbas said, adding that if "Netanyahu agrees, then we're ready to go back to negotiations."

However, the PA president added, if the Israeli premier does not agree to the terms, "then we'll file complaints against Israel in international institutions and go to the UN again."

Netanyahu aides have not expressed enthusiasm concerning the possibility of holding what they deem to be a theatrical meeting between a Palestinian delegation and the premier, which they say seems geared at delivering a letter which includes Palestinians accusations against Israel. It is estimated that the request for such a meeting will be denied.

However, despite that, Netanyahu's aides do not rule out a meeting between the Palestinian delegation and Molho, in which the letter would be delivered. While Molho won't refuse the missive, it is unclear at the moment what Israel's course of action may be – will it ignore the letter or draft one of its own.

"We're not ruling out accepting the letter from the Palestinians," an Israeli source with knowledge of the details told Haaretz, adding that, "all things considered, the atmosphere from both sides isn’t belligerent, no bells and whistles. The Palestinians have decided that an extreme measure would only hurt them."

Next week, on April 11, the foreign ministers of the Quartet – United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European union – will meet to discuss the peace talks standstill. The Quartet's Mideast envoy Tony Blair and U.S. envoy David Hale attended meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah to get a feel of the situation ahead of the summit.

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