Pressure mounts for direct Mideast talks ahead of Arab meet
International calls for direct Middle East peace talks mounted on Wednesday ahead of a key meeting of Arab ministers as the Palestinians stuck to their demand for guarantees on borders.
Arab foreign ministers were to meet in Cairo on Thursday to decide whether to endorse moving to face-to-face negotiations after nearly three months of US-mediated indirect talks that the Palestinians say have made no progress.
The ministers were expected to back Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has said he will only go to direct negotiations if he is given assurances they will succeed where past talks have collapsed into violence.
"We do not reject negotiations, but we want negotiations on a clear foundation that will lead to an independent Palestinian state," he told AFP earlier this week.
Specifically, he wants the 1967 borders separating Israel from the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem as the starting point of the negotiations and for Israel to freeze all settlement activity in both territories.
"It is clear that the Netanyahu government does not want this," he said, referring to Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition deeply opposed to giving up east Jerusalem.
Israel annexed the Arab half of the city after capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War in a move not recognised internationally. The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is willing to meet with Abbas to discuss all the core issues of the decades-old conflict, and he and other top officials have accused the Palestinians of dodging direct talks.
"Everything is open for discussion... But it is impossible in advance to agree on a specific agenda on the 1967 lines, settlements or (Palestinian) refugees," Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday.
"Clearly, it's going to be a long and complex negotiation process," he added, speaking to reporters alongside visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Moratinos echoed his remarks, saying "if you want to make peace, if you want to make a final settlement, you need to meet directly."
Washington has also stepped up pressure on the two sides, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking at the weekend by telephone with Netanyahu and her counterparts from Jordan and Qatar.
"We have a full-court press under way to see if we can move to direct negotiations," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Tuesday.
"We're hopeful that the parties will reach this point but I can't pinpoint a particular day on the calendar."
Netanyahu and Abbas met separately with Jordan's King Abdullah II this week, and both have received a string of phone calls from European leaders urging direct negotiations.
Abbas has meanwhile faced internal pressure to hold off on direct talks from his own secular Fatah movement and their bitter rivals in the Islamist Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction.
Earlier this month Fatah said there was a "lack of credibility and confidence" in the indirect talks that could undermine direct negotiations.
And on Tuesday senior Hamas leader Salah al-Bardawil warned a return to direct talks would "only serve the Zionist occupation."
"We warn (Abbas) of the consequences of returning to negotiations, either with Arab cover or under pressure from America, because this will deepen the divide and put our cause on the the brink of collapse," he said.
"Abbas's talk of a clearly defined reference as a condition for restarting direct talks with the enemy confirms that Fatah has committed a huge error by negotiating for the last 20 years without one," he added.
© 2010 AFP