Israel, Palestinians to meet Tuesday; prospects hazy

JERUSALEM Mon Jan 2, 2012 8:23am IST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet this week after more than a year of deadlock in peacemaking, officials said on Sunday, but both sides played down prospects of any imminent resumption of talks.

Yitzhak Molcho of Israel and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will meet on Tuesday in Jordan alongside representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

"This aims at reaching a common ground to resume direct talks between the two sides and to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord ... by the end of 2012," the official Jordanian news agency Petra quoted Mohammad al-Kayed, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Amman, as saying.

"It is essential that both sides take advantage of this opportunity," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released in Washington.

Negotiations stalled in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank as demanded by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land where, along with the Gaza Strip, they intend to found a state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

The Israelis and Palestinians will meet bilaterally as well as with the Quartet in Amman, according to Kayed and Clinton.

Israel said Molcho would "take part in the Quartet meeting" yet made no mention of Erekat in its statement, or of direct contacts with the Palestinians.

Wasl Abu Yossef, a senior figure in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's umbrella PLO executive, described Tuesday's meeting as a forum for the sides to "offer their positions on security and borders" as requested by the Quartet in October.

UNDERSTANDINGS

"This is not a resumption of negotiations," Abu Yossef told Reuters in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas's administration.

Erekat said the meeting would be "part of ongoing Jordanian efforts to compel Israel to comply with its international legal obligations ... specifically its obligation to freeze all settlement construction".

Most countries deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George W. Bush.

For its part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government criticises Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent coexistence with Israel. Abbas has also balked at Israel's demand that he recognise it as a Jewish state.

But both sides have been rattled by upheavals that have bolstered Islamists in Jordan and Egypt. Fierce pro-Palestinian sentiment in both countries, among the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel, often backs Hamas rather than Abbas.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has in recent months taken a leading role in attempts to broker new negotiations, stepping in after U.S. President Barack Obama's administration failed to revive diplomacy.

"As the president and I have said before, the need for a lasting peace is more urgent than ever. The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace," Clinton said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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