Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made no breakthrough during their first high-level discussions in more than a year on Tuesday, but agreed to hold further talks in Amman on a confidential basis, Jordan’s foreign minister said.
Tuesday’s talks were aimed at agreeing terms under which the two sides’ leaders - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - could resume talks.
Negotiations foundered in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by the Palestinians.
Nasser Judeh, who hosted the talks, reported no significant progress but added: “The important thing is the two sides have met face to face.”
“We held today a serious discussion that aims at launching peace talks at the earliest possible opportunity over final status issues.”
The Jordanian foreign minister added that from here on the sides would keep details of the meetings secret. That could boost the chances of progress by easing immediate pressure from Israeli or Palestinian public opinion not to make concessions.
The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land it captured in a 1967 war and on which they intend to establish an independent state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.
Abbas said before Tuesday’s talks that Palestinians could take unilateral steps if Israel does not agree to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state.
“If they don’t ... there are measures that we could take. But we will not declare them now because they have not been finalized. But we will take measures that could be difficult,” Abbas told a group of judges in Ramallah.
The Jewish state said in November it would accelerate settlement building activity the day after the Palestinians won recognition as a state by the U.N. cultural body UNESCO.
Judeh said the two sides had until January 26 to make progress and that meetings would take place in Jordan “on a continual basis, without prior announcement of time and date”.
U.S. HOPES FOR FRESH IMPETUS
The Quartet of Middle East mediators - the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - set a three-month deadline last October for the two sides to make proposals on issues of territory and security, with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of this year.
The Amman talks brought together Quartet representatives, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho.
Established a decade ago, the Quartet has stepped up attempts to broker talks in recent months after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive peace talks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was hopeful the Amman meeting “can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet”.
Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has strongly backed Abbas, is worried that the failure to address issues at the heart of the conflict could renew violence that could endanger its own security.
The majority of Jordan’s population are Palestinians descended from those displaced during successive Arab-Israeli wars since the Jewish state’s foundation in 1948.
Most countries deem Israel’s West Bank 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 Bush.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also criticises Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent co-existence with Israel. Abbas has balked at Israel’s demand that he recognize it as a Jewish state.
Additional reporting by Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah and Alister Bull in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Ben Harding