Mideast talks open as tension prevails

Tone set by rocket attacks, construction

December 13, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators launched their first full-fledged peace talks since 2001, but yesterday's session was marred by tensions over an Israeli construction project in East Jerusalem and fresh rocket attacks carried out by Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's plans to build 300 new homes in a neighborhood it calls Har Homa have drawn denunciations from Palestinian officials and had prompted calls to boycott the formal start of a promised yearlong effort to reach a peace agreement.

Palestinian negotiators attended but used the opportunity to blast the Israeli plans anew. Officials on both sides described the mood as tense.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli project threatened to undermine hopes for reviving the peace process following the conference held last month in Annapolis.

"Either you choose a path of settlement and incursion and business as usual or you choose peace," Erekat said the Palestinians told the Israeli negotiators. "With this, you are destroying us."

The two teams, led by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, met in a Jerusalem hotel for about an hour and a half.

"They expressed their concerns. We also expressed our concerns," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "What's important is that there's a commitment to deal with these issues."

Israel's immediate concerns center mostly on security in the West Bank and Gaza, from which militants launched more than 20 rockets and mortars into southern Israel yesterday.

The day's talks were expected to focus on setting the framework and schedule for coming negotiations over central issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and borders of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli officials said the two teams agreed to meet again after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha late this month. The latest barrage of rocket fire into Israeli by Gaza-based militants came a day after Israeli tanks and troops pressed into the southern part of the strip, killing at least five people in what the army said was a continuing effort to stop the attacks.

The burst of rockets yesterday prompted the mayor of the town of Sederot, which has been a frequent target, to resign. Mayor Eli Moyal said the Israeli government had done too little to protect his town.

Taken together, the construction dispute and rocket attacks underscored the difficulties that await any serious attempt to end the decades-old conflict with a negotiated peace.

Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowed in Annapolis last month to try to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict by the end of 2008.

But expectations are extremely low here that Olmert and Abbas, both politically weak, can forge a lasting peace during the next year.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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