Israeli Deputy PM Dan Meridor hopes the two sides will "find common ground" at the talks
Israel's Intelligence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, pictured in February, says that a planned meeting with Palestinian negotiators after a 16-month pause is a positive step but should not be seen as renewal of negotiations. © Attila Kisbenedek - AFP
Israeli Deputy PM Dan Meridor hopes the two sides will
AFP
Last updated: January 2, 2012

Mideast talks positive, says Israeli minister

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators headed to Jordan on Monday for their first face-to-face meeting in nearly 16 months, although both sides stressed it did not mark a renewal of talks.

Israel's chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho and his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat were to sit down together on Tuesday in Amman at the invitation of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair was also to attend the session, along with other officials of the diplomatic grouping, which represents the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

"This is a positive development," senior Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor told public radio.

"It is the first time in a long while that the Palestinians have been prepared to come and talk to us directly, without preconditions."

Meridor, who holds the intelligence portfolio and is also deputy prime minister, said the meeting did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks, but expressed hope it would be a springboard which would "allow the Palestinians to return to negotiations.

"We were not asked to make declarations at the preliminary talks," he said, indicating that only in the context of actual negotiations would Israel lay out its positions.

Earlier on Tuesday, Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio.

"This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Erakat urged Israel not to waste the rare opportunity of a face-to-face meeting.

"This is a valuable opportunity for peace and Israel shouldn't waste it and once again be the reason for the failure of efforts by the international community, by the Quartet and by Jordan, to resume the negotiations," he said.

Should Tuesday's meeting end without progress, a committee of officials from the Palestinian leadership would look into the available options and "present its recommendations to president (Mahmud) Abbas within the next few days," he said.

"2012 will be the year in which we continue our efforts to put Palestine on the map geographically," he declared.

"If the Israeli premier (Benjamin Netanyahu) thinks that by continuing to build settlements.. and destroying any prospect of implementing the two-state solution, that he can stop our efforts, then he is wrong."

News that the two sides would be meeting for the first time in more than a year sparked an angry reaction from Gaza's Hamas rulers, who are trying to push through a reconciliation deal with Abbas's Fatah movement.

"We demand a boycott of this meeting," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP. "Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure."

And the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also denounced the move as a "fatal error" which would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game.

"The occupation and the Quartet are the only beneficiaries from the Amman meeting that is, in fact, a negotiations meeting that drains the Palestinian national account," the group said in a statement.

Israel's Meridor said the initiative to get the two sides talking after a hiatus of nearly 16 months had come from Jordan in what he described as a "positive change."

"It wasn't involved until now and this is its initiative. It is a change and a positive change," he said.

"Jordan is a neighbour and we have important relations with it and I think that its involvement in any solution to the Palestinian problem is critical," he added.

Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank construction expired and Netanyahu declined to renew it.

Abbas has said he will not hold talks without a freeze on settlement building and agreement on a clear framework for talks based on 1967 lines.

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