Palestinians balk at Kerry, refuse to endorse plan restarting talks with Israel
Bibi threatened with collapsed government if he caves
ERUSALEM (MCT) Dimming hopes for an imminent breakthrough in Mideast peace talks, Palestinian leaders on Thursday declined to endorse a U.S. proposal to restart direct negotiations with Israel.
After an urgent meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian leaders from the major political factions said they needed more time to study the initiative, but several expressed doubts that it will be enough to entice them back to the negotiating table.
U.S. officials, nevertheless, kept working late Thursday in an effort to address the Palestinians' concerns and win their support.
Expectations had been high earlier in the day that Palestinians would quickly accept the initiative, clearing the way for the first direct talks since 2010 between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The lack of a quick endorsement was another setback for Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has made a resumption of Mideast peace talks a top priority. On his sixth trip to the region in as many months, Kerry met this week with Abbas in Amman, Jordan, in an attempt to persuade the Palestinian leader to return to negotiations.
After receiving Kerry's proposal this week, Abbas gathered leaders of his Fatah party, the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee and other Palestinian factions to unveil details of the plan, which has so far been kept secret.
As leaders exited the meeting, many expressed disappointment, saying the plan failed to address long-standing demands that Israel halt all settlement construction on land it seized in 1967 and accept the pre-1967 lines as the basis for future border talks, officials said.
Those in the meeting said the Palestinian leadership was reluctant to reject the plan outright for fear of alienating America's top diplomat. Instead they asked a committee to formulate an official response, expected late Thursday or Friday, which is likely to ask for clarification and changes.
"There is opposition," said Azzam Ahmad, a member of Fatah's central committee. He said Palestinians want a clearer statement that talks will be resumed using the 1967 lines as a basis for setting borders.
Mustafa Barghouti, head of the independent National Initiative, said the U.S. proposal fell short. "Kerry's plan did not say anything about settlement freeze and the 1967 borders," he said. "What Kerry presented was very general and the same" as what President Barack Obama previously said, Barghouti noted.
According to Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the PLO Executive Committee, the leadership felt "the plan presented by Kerry was not enough to resume negotiations."
Substantive peace talks between Israel and Palestinians have been stalled since 2008, though Netanyahu and Abbas met briefly in 2010 at the urging of Obama. Those talks broke down a month later when Israel refused to extend its 10-month partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction and Abbas quit in protest.
But Abbas is said to be leery of re-entering another round of peace talks that fail. His failure to bring Palestinians closer to statehood through negotiations has cost him political support at home.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that no announcement regarding a resumption of talks was imminent. Kerry is expected to leave Friday.
Some unconfirmed elements of Kerry's plan began to circulate Thursday in the Israeli news media.
One report suggested that Netanyahu had agreed to resume talks based on the pre-1967 lines, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, something he has long rejected. His spokesman quickly denied the report.
Instead, it is expected that Kerry would declare the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations, allowing Netanyahu to accept his invitation to join the process without explicitly accepting the terms, according to Israel's Channel 2.
A similar compromise would be used to overcome Abbas' refusal to accept Israel as a "Jewish" state.
It remained unclear how Kerry's plan would address settlement construction, but many expect Netanyahu to quietly agree to a limited freeze, as long as it does not include Jerusalem or the major settlement blocks.
Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners warned him against accepting the 1967 lines as a basis for border negotiations.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home, said Thursday that he would quit the government if the prime minister negotiated under such a framework.
"The Jewish Home, under my leadership, will not be part of a government agreeing to negotiate on the basis of the 67 lines, not even for one second," he said on his Facebook page. "Jerusalem, our capital, is not, nor will it ever be, up for negotiation."
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