U.S., Russia Should Hold Geneva Talks for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Says Negotiator

Palestinian president Abbas tells new Israeli opposition leader Herzog: Tenders for 24,000 housing units in settlements sabotage talks.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Sunday with new opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) and warned that the Housing Ministry tenders for 24,000 housing units in the settlements were "an attempt to sabotage negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."

Abbas added that if the tenders were to be carried out it would "endanger the whole peace process."

Abbas told Herzog that the Palestinian Authority was surprised to discover that despite assurances received two weeks ago that the tenders were frozen, they remained on the Housing Ministry's website until last weekend.

Ministry officials said that though the tenders still appeared on the site last week the links led nowhere. This morning, following U.S. requests, all mentions of the tenders were removed from the website.

Abbas told Herzog he was interested in reaching a peace treaty with Israel. "I don't know what will happen after my era," Abbas told Herzog. "Now is the time. The situation in the region offers a fitting atmosphere, now more than ever before."

Herzog met Abbas several days after being elected Labor Party chairman. On Thursday Herzog met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he is slated to fly to the United States next week to attend the Saban Forum, a series of panels hosting Israeli and American leaders.

Herzog, who attended the meeting together with Labor MKs Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev, stressed that the Israeli public attaches the utmost importance to security arrangements and therefore that issue should be resolved as soon as possible.

Herzog told Abbas of his meeting with Netanyahu, saying that he told the latter that Labor would support any historical step leading to peace. After the meeting with Abbas, Herzog released a statement saying that "I was impressed that we have a partner who is willing to go a long way for peace, and would accept brave and original solutions to the core issues."

On November 12, Haaretz reported that the Housing Ministry had issued a tender to plan the construction of some 24,000 housing units in the West Bank, including 1,200 housing units in the E1 area, which links Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, a stretch of land Israel promised the United States it would not develop.

When the news of the tenders broke, Abbas threatened to call off peace talks and demanded that Israel reverse its new settlement plans. The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the announcement of the tenders and demanded an explanation from Jerusalem.

Netanyahu reprimanded Housing Minister Uri Ariel, saying his ministry’s move to issue tenders for potential construction does not contribute to the settlement movement, but rather damages it. Netanyahu also told the housing minister that he expects him to coordinate with him on such moves before going ahead.

'Settlement project not shelved'

Senior Palestinian officials involved in the peace talks told Haaretz Sunday that Abbas will ask U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to clarify the outlines of the negotiations in light of what the Palestinians call Israel's lack of willingness to make progress. According to the officials, he will make this request during their meeting this weekend.

The Palestinian officials said Abbas, who recently declared his commitment to the nine-month time frame determined by Kerry, is under fire from Palestinian leaders who present him daily with new information about settlement construction, settler violence, damage to Palestinian property, daily arrests of Palestinians, provocations at the Temple Mount and Palestinian casualties. Western diplomats who spoke with senior Palestinian officials concluded that the Palestinians believe Ariel’s plan to build 24,000 settlement housing units was not shelved, but rather hidden and that the project will go ahead, leading to the end of the peace process.

According to the officials, it was the internal pressure and disappointment from the talks that led Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh to submit his resignation from the negotiating team together with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat three weeks ago. Abbas has yet to convene the PLO's executive committee to discuss the resignation, but Shtayyeh told Haaretz that he had indeed resigned following Israel's conduct and does not intend to change his mind.

Shtayyeh said that the repeated statements by Israeli ministers in support of settlement construction and their opposition to the release of Palestinian prisoners prove that there is currently "no serious Israeli partner" for peace.

According to Shtayyeh, if Netanyahu and his government wish to demonstrate their reliability, they should pass a government resolution backing the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Shtayyeh added that the Palestinian leadership should take advantage of the international atmosphere following the deal reached in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers, as well as calls for a second Geneva conference on the Syrian crisis, and pressure the United States and Russia to promote a Geneva outline for the Palestinians, too.

"It is possible that international conflicts require an international solution, and that what worked for Iran and might work for Syria, could also work for the Palestinians," Shtayyeh said, adding that such an initiative could lead to a breakthrough in the talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) shakes hands with Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor Party, in Ramallah, Dec. 1, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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