Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held a “positive” first face-to-face meeting in more than 15 months and agreed to meet again on Friday, but cautioned that full-blown talks were still some way off.
“The talks and atmosphere were positive,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters after Tuesday’s talks in Amman between Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh.
Washington too welcomed what it described as a “positive development” after months of deadlock in peace talks over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal in 2010 to renew a freeze on most settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
Judeh, who hosted the meeting in the Jordanian capital, voiced cautious optimism. “The two sides expressed their commitment to a two-state solution. We do not want to raise the level of expectations, but at the same time we do not want to minimise the importance of this meeting,” he said.
“The Palestinians submitted a paper on borders and security. The Israeli side received it, promising to study it and respond,” he said.
A Palestinian official close to the talks told AFP that “the meeting on Tuesday… brought nothing new because the Israeli delegation did not bring up any new element during the discussions.”
But “we agreed to have a second meeting on Friday in Amman under the auspices of the Quartet and in the presence of Jordan,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
He was referring to the international Middle East Quartet that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had earlier said that the Palestinians were looking to find “the right foundation” to resume talks with Israel.
“We hope Jordanian efforts work,” he was quoted as saying by Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Israel and the Palestinians to press ahead with peace efforts on the heels of their “promising” talks in Jordan.
Thanking the Jordanian authorities for facilitating the ground-breaking face-to-face, Ashton said: “I encourage Israel and the Palestinians to build on this promising first meeting and continue to work toward a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”
“The EU remains fully committed to do all it can to contribute to the resolution of the conflict,” she added in a statement.
Earlier this week, Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor said the fact that a meeting was taking place was “a positive development” but that it did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks.
Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio.
“This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations,” he said on Monday.
Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank settlement construction expired and Netanyahu declined to renew it.
“We will see what the Quartet’s position will be in this meeting and if it is willing to seriously address the obstacles to the peace process and negotiations put by Israel,” PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine.
Abbas met with US envoy David Hale in Ramallah late on Monday and told him there would be no resumption of talks unless Israel froze settlement construction and accepted the 1967 borders as the basis for peace talks, a Palestinian official told AFP.
The Quartet has been trying to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table, asking them for comprehensive proposals on territory and security.
White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the difficulties President Barack Obama faced in getting a resumption of talks.
“He is doing everything he can to bring them together at the table,” Carney said.
“And this is obviously a challenging issue — it has been so for a long time. But the president’s very focused on doing what he can to make it happen.”
Abed Rabbo said Washington wanted the talks to restart “without any preconditions or promises on settlement expansion.
“This does not fulfil the conditions for a resumption of negotiations nor does it enable any negotiations to succeed,” he said.
The meeting sparked an angry reaction from the Islamist Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas’s forces in 2007.
“Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP on Monday.