by Barak Ravid
The three meetings held so far between Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the current round of peace talks have addressed nothing of substance, diplomatic sources say.
American mediators are still trying to save the talks from collapsing in the crisis following the resumption of construction in settlements.
Netanyahu refused to hold a serious discussion on any of the core issues apart from security, Abbas reportedly told diplomats he met at the UN General Assembly. Israeli and foreign sources say the main problem is that Netanyahu refuses to present fundamental positions or discuss the borders of the Palestinian state.
“I heard nothing from Netanyahu but niceties,” Abbas reportedly told foreign diplomats.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell presented the talks as very successful, saying they were moving more rapidly than those in Northern Ireland, where he also served as mediator. He said Abbas and Netanyahu were dealing with all the tough issues and not leaving them to the end of the discussions.
But both Israeli and Palestinian sources said Mitchell’s statement was “inaccurate” at best. A European diplomat who met the Palestinian negotiating team in New York about a week ago told Haaretz the Palestinians were furious with Mitchell. “He gave a false presentation of progress,” the diplomat said a Palestinian official had told him.
Five Israeli and foreign diplomats, who were briefed about the Netanyahu-Abbas meetings by one of the parties or by senior American officials, said prospects for progress in the talks remained gloomy, even if the construction crisis were solved.
The two first meetings, held during the talks’ launch in Washington on September 2 and at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on September 14, mainly dealt with technical matters like the order of the topics to be discussed and the future of the construction freeze in the settlements.
The first meeting dealt with setting a date for the next meeting and with formulating a “conduct code” for the talks, mainly to prevent leaks. They also discussed the construction freeze and what to discuss first – security or borders.
After the second meeting, Mitchell said the parties had discussed seriously and in detail core issues of the final status arrangement. But officials briefed about that meeting said it dealt with an attempt to define the “core issues” rather than presenting positions on them.
The sources said this discussion was strange as at least two Israeli governments had reached an agreement with the Palestinians on this issue.
The sources said the sterile discussion about whether to discuss borders or security first, or both issues simultaneously, continued.
Mitchell described the third meeting, held on September 15 in Jerusalem, as very positive and said it made considerable progress. Here too officials familiar with the talks said the opposite is true.
Abbas presented Netanyahu with all the details of his talks with former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the current Palestinian stands on borders, security, the refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements. Netanyahu refused to comment on the Palestinian positions, especially on the borders, and would only present his position on the security arrangements.
Abbas was “alarmed” to hear at that meeting that Netanyahu was interested in reaching a framework agreement within a year, but in implementing it over a period of at least 20 years, a European diplomat said.
The American brokers were reportedly extremely frustrated after the meeting in Jerusalem and some of them wondered if the talks hadn’t in fact gone backward.
A source close to the prime minister confirmed that Netanyahu refused to go into core issues such as the borders in detail. As long as the construction crisis was not over and the talks’ continuation was not assured, Netanyahu did not want to present a position that could endanger him politically, the source explained.
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