Split PLO votes to support proximity talks

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IN a controversial vote, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Executive Committee gave its support on Sunday to proposed indirect peace negotiations with Israel.

‘In the light of the Arab stance and on the basis on its national responsibility, the Palestinian leadership decided to give the US proposal a chance, holding indirect talks between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, which will initially focus on the issues of borders and security,’ senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters following the four-hour meeting.

The Arab League gave its blessing to the negotiations on Wednesday, paving the way for the renewal of talks that were halted when Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

US President Barack Obama’s administration has been pressuring Israel and the PLO to return to negotiations since the end of the war, which left some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

President Mahmud Abbas declared direct negotiations impossible as long as Israel expands West Bank settlements.

Abed Rabbo also said that the two sides have agreed to the 1967 borders as a basis of negotiations.

It is not clear, however, whether the negotiations would take into account understandings Abbas reached with Israel in the last round of formal talks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Abed Rabbo, who serves as the PLO’s Executive Committee Secretary noted that the committee was not unanimous in its decision.

‘This decision of the Palestinian leadership was taken with the objection or disagreement of a number factions and members of the Executive Committee,’ he said, without divulging names.

The Palestinian People’s Party said in a statement following the meeting that it had voted against a return to negotiations.

The group said the PLO was ‘embarrassed’ by Abbas’ decision to ask the Arab League to support a return to negotiations.

‘The decision to resume talks should be only up to the organisations of the PLO with all of our appreciation and respect for the support of the Arabs to the Palestinians and their cause,’ the statement said.

While the PLO was expected to vote in favour of the proposal, several PLO officials and members of Abbas’ Fatah party recently voiced opposition to renewed talks.

Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeina stressed that the return to talks was conditional and temporary. He said: ‘We don’t want guarantees . . . what is needed is clear decisions . . . Does Israel want peace? Is US administration able to continue with the peace process in spite of Israel’s stubbornness?’

‘The region will be at a crossroads for the next four months while we evaluate the peace process, whether it is moving forward or returning to a condition of paralysis,’ he added.

US envoy George Mitchell, who is expected to mediate in the talks, began meeting with Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, on Saturday evening and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Under a US proposal, Mitchell is to shuttle between the two sides.

US Vice-President Joe Biden is to arrive in Israel later on Sunday.

At the start of his four-hour meeting with Mitchell in West Jerusalem, Netanyahu told reporters, ‘If there is a desire to get to direct talks through a corridor then I think the sooner the better.’ Israeli officials said the two had a ‘good conversation’ but did not divulge other details.

In accordance with the Arab League’s decision, the negotiators will have just four months to achieve progress, at which time Arab states say they will refer the issue to the UN Security Council.

Speaking to a rally in Ramallah earlier on Sunday, Abbas sounded a patriotic note, saying the PLO would not accept a peace deal without Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. He also said Israel’s continued seizure of Palestinian land threatened renewed violence.

‘Israel’s ongoing settlement and expansion policy at the expense of inalienable Palestinian rights will have disastrous consequences,’ he said.

‘These violations promise a dark future, in light of the absence of peace and stability, which we all look forward to achieving for the best of the region’s peoples.

‘No Palestinian state can be established without Jerusalem, neither can a peace agreement be reached without Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Palestine.’

l Fatah proposed on Sunday the formation of a multiparty ‘high national committee’ to monitor and follow up on planned peace negotiations with Israel.

This was after the PLO leadership had given Sunday’s green light for President Mahmud Abbas to begin indirect negotiations with Israel with the US mediating.

Unnamed Fatah sources told the group’s website that the party will propose a committee composed of multiple PLO factions and independent political figures.

Fatah will nominate to the proposed committee chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, former Gaza strongman Muhammad Dahlan, former security chief Jibril Rajoub, Yasser Arafat’s nephew Nasser Al-Qudwa, and PA civil affairs chief Hussein Ash-Sheikh.

The committee is also expected to include caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and independent PLO official Hanan Ashrawi.

The website also said the purpose of the proposed boy would be to ‘coordinate with the national factions one united stance concerning negotiations.’

Islamic factions including Hamas are apparently excluded from the committee.

The statement also hinted at concerns about whether Israel will commit in negotiations to peace along the 1967 borders.

‘If this is not achieved then the Palestinian leadership will return to the Arab League follow-up committee . . . to take the necessary steps,’ the statement said.

l The Hamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs under-secretary, Ahmad Yousef, said on Saturday, March 6th that US-sponsored proximity talks with Israel are a cover for Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.

‘If we were politically in agreement with the Palestinian National Authority, the occupation would not have dared to storm the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or include the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Bilal Mosque on the Jewish heritage list,’ Yousef said.

Yousef further called on Egypt to invite all Palestinian factions to convene in Cairo to discuss the impasses reached in signing a unity deal.

‘Palestinian reconciliation is a strategic choice, and division should end as soon as possible,’ he added.