August 14, 2013

Tensions high, expectations low as Israelis, Palestinians start talks

By Josef Federman / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Burhan Sbeih, a released Palestinian prisoner, kisses his mother at his home in the West Bank village of Kofr Raei near Jenin city after his release Wednesday.

The Associated Press

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A released Palestinian prisoner, Esmat Mansour, center, waves a flag as he is cheered at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday. Israel released 26 Palestinian inmates, including many convicted in grisly killings, on the eve of long-stalled Mideast peace talks, angering families of those slain by the prisoners, who were welcomed as heroes in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Associated Press

Wednesday's meeting came after a preliminary gathering in Washington two weeks ago.

Abed Rabbo said the talks were to tackle borders and security arrangements first. Previous negotiations, in 2000 and in 2007-2008, broke down before the sides got to the explosive issues of dividing Jerusalem and resettling millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The civil war in neighboring Syria to Israel's north, strife in Egypt to the south and Hamas' control of Gaza have all heightened Netanyahu's concerns about his country's security.

Israeli hard-liners fear the West Bank, where Abbas leads a limited self-rule government, could follow the path of Gaza if Israel withdraws from the area.

Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and two years later, Hamas militants overran the territory, seizing control from Abbas' forces. Since then, Gaza militants have frequently launched rockets into Israel. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes Abbas' peace efforts.

Overnight Wednesday, Israeli aircraft attacked what the army said was rocket-launching equipment in Gaza. The army said the airstrike was in response to rocket fire several hours earlier. There were no injuries on either side.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of the ruling Likud party argued that Israelis today would not accept the proposal made by Olmert five years ago.

Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians roughly 94 percent of the West Bank, with the equivalent of 6 percent of the land coming from Israeli territory in a "land swap" to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements. Olmert also proposed international administration of east Jerusalem.

Such an agreement "will not win support, not just from me, but also from the Likud and, I think, most of the nation," Danon told Israel Radio.

Abbas has said that while progress was made with Olmert, the sides still were unable to resolve their differences. With Netanyahu seemingly unwilling to offer as much as Olmert, it has raised troubling questions about whether these talks can succeed.

Still, there may be some reasons for faint optimism.

The Palestinians have seen their cause eclipsed by the unrest roiling the region. Continued Israeli settlement construction has further added to the sense that time could be working against them.

Israel also has reasons to push forward. After receiving upgraded status at the U.N. last year, the Palestinians have threatened to resume their campaign to join additional international bodies to pursue war crimes charges and other anti-Israel measures if the talks fail.

Many Israelis also fear the country could come under international pressure, or even economic boycotts, over the settlement issue.

Most demographers believe that without establishment of a Palestinian state, the Arab population living under Israeli rule will soon outnumber Jews. That would threaten Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic country.

In a sign of international discontent, the European Union recently said it would withhold funding to Israeli organizations that operate in the West Bank.

Gilad Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator, praised the decision by the sides to conduct their talks in secret, saying it would help keep emotions in check.

But he said it was unlikely the sides could bridge their gaps.

"I think what is needed is to prepare and speak and cautiously hope for partial agreements, perhaps on issues of borders and security, economic issues and the policies of the Palestinian state. But we must also prepare for dead ends and blow-ups," he told Israel Radio.

He said Israel should consider the option of a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank if all else fails.

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