RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Israel's new vice prime minister next week, an aide said Thursday, although expectations are low that the rare high-level talks will help restart long-stalled peace negotiations.
Israel's Shaul Mofaz, leader of the centrist Kadima Party, is to hold talks with Abbas on Sunday at the Palestinian leader's West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Mofaz spokesman Imri Mazor said efforts were being made to arrange a meeting, but did not specify a date.
Negotiations to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel broke off in 2008.
Efforts to restart them have failed because hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas cannot agree on the ground rules. Abbas says there is no point in talking as long as Israel keeps building settlements for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 war, along with the Gaza Strip. Half a million Israelis now live in the war-won territories the Palestinians want for a future state. Netanyahu refuses to freeze settlements and argues talks should resume without preconditions.
Abbas aides said his meeting with Mofaz does not constitute a resumption of formal peace negotiations.
Abbas will tell Mofaz that he still insists on a settlement freeze ahead of negotiations, said a senior adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contacts. Abbas will tell Mofaz that he is willing to hold exploratory meetings with Netanyahu if the Israeli premier first releases more than 120 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel since before the interim peace agreements of the mid-1990s, the adviser said.
Kadima unexpectedly joined Netanyahu's center-right coalition last month, and is seen as the main member of the alliance pushing for a deal with the Palestinians. Mofaz has proposed seeking an interim arrangement with the Palestinians, granting them independence within temporary borders, while final borders and other issues are subsequently worked out.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not say whether Netanyahu would contemplate the release of dozens of veteran Palestinian prisoners.
A public opinion poll, meanwhile, suggested that the Palestinian president's popularity is slipping because of authoritarian measures in the West Bank, including the arrest of journalists, and delays in implementing a reconciliation deal with political rival Hamas that controls Gaza. The deal was to lead to long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections.
In the poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 71 percent of 1,200 respondents said they are dissatisfied with the fact that elections are not being held as promised, and two-thirds said they believe they live in an undemocratic system.
The poll said support for the Palestinian president slipped to 49 percent, down from 54 percent three months ago, while the Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, scored 44 percent support, up from 42 percent in March.
The survey, published Thursday, had an error margin of 3 percentage points.