Envoys of the Middle East Quartet were on Wednesday holding talks with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in a bid to find a way to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
But the chances of a breakthrough in the deadlock which has gripped the negotiations for more than a year looked extremely remote with both sides taking very different positions on the conditions for restarting talks.
Wednesday’s talks at Government House, the UN headquarters in annexed east Jerusalem, is the latest in a series of international initiatives aimed at resuscitating direct negotiations which broke down in autumn 2010.
Envoys from the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States met Quartet envoy Tony Blair before holding talks with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, a diplomatic source told AFP.
They are also scheduled to sit down for discussions with Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molho.
“The whole aim of this is to bring them back to negotiations,” the source said, on condition of anonymity.
“They’re trying to do it back-to-back at this stage to get them back to negotiations because that’s probably the only way it’s going to happen.”
It is the first time the Quartet envoys have met the two sides since Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas submitted a request for UN state membership on September 23 that was sharply condemned by both Israel and Washington.
Just hours later, the Quartet issued a loosely worded statement proposing that Israel and the Palestinians resume direct peace talks within a month and make a commitment to securing a deal by the end of 2012.
But October 23 came and went with no sign that the parties were any closer to resuming talks, with both sides holding a different interpretation of the initiative.
Israel says it accepts the Quartet’s proposal for an immediate resumption of talks as long as there are no “preconditions” but the Palestinians say they won’t talk until Israel freezes settlement — a demand they say is written into the proposal.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat repeated that position in his meeting with the Quartet envoys, he said in a statement after their discussions.
“These are not favours that Israel is doing for us. These are its obligations in accordance with international law and the road map,” he added, referring to a document that was intended to pave the way for a peace deal.
“Anything short of that will simply put us back on the failed track that we have been on for the last 20 years.”
Erakat said the Palestinians wanted to know what “concrete measures” the Quartet would take to hold Israel accountable during any future peace talks.
“Issuing statements and press releases is not enough as evidenced by Israel’s continued intransigence,” he said.
The Quartet’s September 23 proposal was issued with the aim of heading off a diplomatic showdown over the UN membership bid, which is set to be put to a vote in the UN Security Council in coming weeks.
Washington and Israel say a Palestinian state can emerge only as the result of a negotiated settlement between the parties, and not through a UN resolution. But Abbas says the bid can run concurrently with peace talks.
The United States has vowed to veto the request in a move many fear could spark an anti-US backlash in the Middle East.