Abbas: No point in direct talks with Israel now

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president, who is under U.S. pressure to resume direct talks with Israel, said that doing so under current circumstances would be pointless.

Mahmoud Abbas sounded determined not to return to the table unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commits to an internationally mandated settlement freeze and agrees to pick up talks where they left off under the Israeli leader’s predecessor in December 2008.

However, it could become increasingly difficult for him to stick to his position as the Obama administration pushes harder to revive the negotiations.

Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to either demand, and has so far curbed but not frozen settlement activity. He insists negotiations should be held without any preconditions.

Later this week, White House envoy George Mitchell is to meet with Abbas and is expected to lay out some gestures Israel is prepared to make to bring Abbas back to the table, said an Abbas aide.

The Palestinians were not informed about the nature of the gestures, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief reporters on the issue.

Israeli defense officials said Israel was considering expanding the role of Palestinian security forces in West Bank towns and removing additional checkpoints that hinder the movement of people and goods. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decision had been made.

Any decision on resuming talks would not be made without Arab backing, the Abbas aide said. Arab foreign ministers are to discuss the fate of negotiations later this month, he added.

In the absence of direct talks, U.S. envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Abbas said in a speech late Saturday that he has no incentive to resume direct talks.

“We have presented our vision and thoughts and said that if progress is made, we will move to direct talks, but that if no progress is made, it (direct negotiations) will be futile,” Abbas said.

“If they (the Israelis) say ‘come and let’s start negotiations from zero,’ that is futile and pointless,” Abbas added.

Netanyahu reiterated Sunday that he is ready to move to direct talks immediately. “The goal is to promote the political process and to try to reach a peace settlement,” he said. “The condition is guarding Israel’s security scrupulously.”

Netanyahu said in New York last week that if Abbas agreed to sit down with him in direct talks, then a peace agreement could be hammered out within a year.

President Barack Obama called Abbas last week, following the U.S. president’s meeting with Netanyahu. The White House said Obama and Abbas talked about ways to revive direct talks soon.

The Palestinians have said that after 17 years of intermittent talks, they don’t want to start all over again, especially with an Israeli leader who has retreated from positions presented by his predecessors.

Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Palestinian radio Sunday that the Palestinians don’t want to enter open-ended negotiations with Israel.

“There must be a … timetable, a framework for these negotiations,” he said. “We will not enter new negotiations that could take more than 10 years.”

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. They have said the 1967 borders must be the baseline for negotiations, but that they are ready to swap some land to enable Israel to keep some of the largest settlements it has built on occupied land since 1967.

Netanyahu says he will not relinquish any part of Jerusalem and has not presented his own border plan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed Sunday handing areas where Israel’s minority Arab citizens live over to the Palestinians in a peace deal. He told Israel Radio that a deal should be based on “exchanging populations, not land for peace.” He said Jewish settlements in the West Bank would become part of Israel in exchange for Israel’s Arab areas.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker called Lieberman’s proposal “fascist.”

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Many support the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.