EU still sees chance for Israel-Palestinian talks

January 26, 2012 - 3:25 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

The European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, and UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi sign a financial agreement during a meeting in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. Ashton is on a 3-day visit to Israel and Palestinian territories, part of her ongoing efforts to encourage the two sides to resume negotiations. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A low-level dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is not at a dead end, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Thursday, hoping that contacts to get "real negotiations under way" will continue.

"I don't think there's an impasse," Ashton told reporters following talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Jordanian capital.

Her remarks come a day after Abbas said informal talks between Israelis and Palestinians about the border of a future Palestinian state ended without any breakthrough.

"President Abbas is thinking carefully about how to move forward," Ashton said. Abbas has said he will consult on his next moves with the Arab League in a meeting planned for Feb. 4 in Cairo.

While frustrated with the lack of progress, Abbas is under pressure to extend the Jordan-hosted exploratory talks, which the international community hopes will lead to a resumption of long-stalled formal negotiations on establishing an independent Palestinian state.

The Arab League consultation stage could leave the door open to continue the low-level meetings.

A Palestinian walkout could cost Abbas international sympathy at a time when he seeks global recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed understanding. "It's not surprising that the sides need some time to pause and to reflect. Our hope is that this'll only be a little short period and that the will be able to get back to the table relatively quickly," she said. "And that's what we are urging them to do."

The border issue is at the heart of the current standoff. The Palestinians want Israel to halt construction in settlements in the territories they claim, along with an Israeli commitment to make the pre-1967 war lines the basis of a future agreement.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said they hoped Abbas would not end the talks. An official familiar with the negotiations said that during Wednesday night's meeting, the Israelis gave their "principles" for setting a border.

"We presented the Palestinian side the central points that determine our policy on dealing with the territorial issue," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive negotiations.

He refused to elaborate on what was presented, or even to term it a proposal. He said the Palestinians had requested "clarifications on a number of issues," and Israel had also asked for clarifications on some Palestinian proposals presented so far.

The official said the Israelis believe it's "very important" to continue the newly resumed talks, with the goal of forging a comprehensive peace this year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rules out a return to the pre-1967 war lines. He opposes any withdrawal from east Jerusalem and has signaled that he wants to retain an Israeli presence in key parts of the West Bank. Palestinians reject those positions.

Israel withdrew from Gaza, the other part of the state the Palestinians seek, in 2005.

After meeting with Abbas and Israelis in the past few days, Ashton said, "I still remain hopeful that with goodwill, they can continue to talk."

Under Jordanian mediation, Israeli and Palestinian envoys have met several times over the past month. The Quartet of international mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia — said last fall that it expected both sides to submit detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements in these meetings.

The Palestinians say that Thursday is a deadline for the proposals, while Israel says it is only in April. Ashton said the deadline was not "written in stone, but was there to give a sense of dynamic or momentum."

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Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.