Palestinians skeptical of peace talks

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 10:15 p.m. MDT

Palestinian demonstrators hurl stones at Israeli troops, not pictured, during demonstration in the West Bank village of Al-khader near Bethlehem, Friday, May 20, 2011. President Barack Obama on Thursday finally uttered the words the Palestinians had been waiting to hear for two years: that the basis for border talks with Israel is the pre-1967 war line.

Nasser Shiyoukhi, Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials said Saturday that Israel's dismissive response to President Barack Obama's new Mideast peace proposal proves there's not enough common ground for meaningful negotiations.

Despite such skepticism, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed in no hurry to announce his next move. He instructed his advisers to avoid public comment, presumably to keep attention focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who appears to be set on a collision course with Obama.

The U.S. president said this week that Israeli-Palestinian border talks should be based on Israel's pre-1967 war lines, with mutually agreed land swaps, adopting a formula long sought by the Palestinians, but rejected by Netanyahu.

In finally presenting his own vision of the rough outlines of a peace deal, Obama stepped deeper into the Mideast fray after more than two years on the sidelines. However, he did not present a plan of action with his ideas, and the responses from both sides indicated that chances for renewing talks, largely on hold since 2008, are increasingly remote.

Obama and Netanyahu are to address the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on Sunday and Monday, respectively. The Israeli leader also plans to address Congress on Tuesday. A White House spokesman has said Obama will speak of the strong bond between Israel and the U.S., but not deliver a policy speech.

The strain in the relationship became apparent on Friday, after a two-hour White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. In front of TV cameras, Netanyahu at times seemed to lecture Obama, and suggested the president's ideas are unrealistic, saying that "peace based on illusions" will quickly fail.

Among Abbas' senior aides, meanwhile, there seemed to be some disagreement over tactics.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said it's best for the Palestinians to keep quiet and let Netanyahu do the talking.

"We accept two states based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps ... and we want Mr. Netanyahu to say this sentence," Erekat said. "We hope to hear it in front of Congress, at AIPAC, in Hebrew, in Arabic, in Chinese, in any language."

Erekat said it's premature to talk about what to do should Obama fail to renew peace talks. Abbas' aides have been preparing to bypass negotiations, with a bid in September to win U.N. recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Another senior aide, Nabil Shaath, said he expects Abbas to renew his support for the U.N. option in coming days — unless Obama somehow persuades Netanyahu to change course and accept the 1967 borders as a baseline.

"It's very clear that Obama's attempt (to restart talks) was shot down by Mr. Netanyahu," Shaath said Saturday, adding that unless there's an Israeli reversal, "we will continue our work for September and will continue to seek countries that recognize Palestine."

It's unlikely Netanyahu will change course, since he answers to a right-wing coalition at home and told Obama on Friday that the 1967 borders would be "indefensible." Netanyahu did not address the idea of swaps, which would presumably enable Israel to annex parts of the West Bank with large Jewish settlements, provided it compensates the Palestinians with the same amount of Israeli land.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is willing to resume negotiations, but Abbas has said he won't do so as long as Israel keeps building homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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