Questions linger over possible Mideast peace talks

JERUSALEM — Fresh questions arose Sunday about the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a senior Palestinian official said his side has not yet confirmed it will resume direct talks.

Yasser Abed-Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and one of the Palestinians’ designated spokesmen on the U.S. initiative, said the leadership hasn’t made a final decision.

He told Voice of Palestine radio that direct talks would be “conditioned on many clarifications about core issues,” and that several “sticking points” remain unresolved.

Foremost among the unanswered questions are whether border negotiations will be based upon 1967 lines, as Palestinians demand, and whether Israel will halt settlement construction. Palestinians are also seeking prisoner releases.

Israelis have publicly said they will release some “hard-core” Palestinian prisoners but they oppose using 1967 lines as a starting point for borders and say they won’t stop building Jewish housing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Both sides were taken by surprise when U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry abruptly announced Friday evening that they had agreed to resume talks in Washington, perhaps as soon as this week.

Some suspect Kerry’s announcement was a pressure tactic in which he declared that talks would take place and essentially dared the parties not to show up. The hope might be that once both sides start talking again, progress could be made.

But so far neither side has publicly endorsed Kerry’s framework for restarting talks.

Abbas has said nothing publicly since Friday, but senior leaders say he only agreed to send representatives to Washington to appease Kerry.

Abbas is facing criticism from other Palestinian factions for returning to direct talks without receiving clearer assurances from Israel.

“I don’t think it’s so much that he was strong-armed by the Americans,” said Palestinian analyst and former PLO spokeswoman Diana Buttu. “The problem is he doesn’t have any other tools except negotiations. He’s a one-trick pony.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has been cautious and vague in his comments, saying Israel is “making an effort to resume the diplomatic process.”

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, he sought to reassure right-wing critics who fear he will freeze settlement construction by saying that any final peace deal would be put to Israeli citizens for a vote.

“I do not think that such decisions can be made, if indeed an agreement is achieved, by this or that coalition process,” he said. “It must be put to the people for a decision.