Land issues, crackdowns on militants mire Mideast talks

Israelis, Palestinians have stagnated since Annapolis meeting

December 25, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Meeting for the second time this month as part of a new U.S.-influenced peace effort, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators bogged down again yesterday over familiar issues: proposed Israeli construction in areas that the Palestinians claim for a future state and Israel's demand that the Palestinians crack down on armed groups.

The two sides have made no apparent progress since President Bush convened the peace conference last month in an effort to revive serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush is to visit the region in two weeks as part of his diplomatic push.

It was the second time the negotiating teams met since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowed during the peace conference in Annapolis to try to hammer out a peace deal by the end of 2008. Olmert and Abbas are to meet later this week.

Yesterday's session of the negotiating teams, which lasted two hours, was as contentious as the one two weeks earlier that had been billed as the kickoff of the promised yearlong peace push.

The teams, headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, were expected to focus during the early meetings on setting up a framework for further peace negotiations. But they instead have squabbled over settlements and security.

Palestinian leaders earlier objected to Israel's announcement that it would build 300 more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Israel said plans for the Har Homa neighborhood were approved years ago.

In recent days, Israeli media have reported that Israel's proposed 2008 national budget includes about $25 million to build more than 700 units in Har Homa and the settlement of Maale Adumim.

The Palestinians say the building plans violate Israel's commitments under the U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the "road map." Israel and the Palestinians have vowed to implement the first phase of the plan at the same time their leaders pursue a negotiated end to the conflict.

That phase calls for Israel to freeze settlement activity, including "natural growth" of existing settlements, and for the Palestinians to act against armed groups.

For its part, Israel sees little chance of progress unless the Palestinians take action against militias that have carried out hundreds of attacks against Israelis, including regular cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. While Abbas' government no longer controls Gaza, the Israelis contend that no peace settlement involving the coastal enclave can be reached without dismantling the militias there.

The road map has languished since it was unveiled in 2003 because of noncompliance on both sides.

Israel views Har Homa as part of the municipality of Jerusalem and thus subject only to Israeli law. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967, but most of the world has not recognized that action.

Israeli officials contend that any new construction in Maale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem and the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, would comply with the road map because it would occur only in areas that are already built up, and not require confiscating more land.

Israel views Maale Adumim as part of the complex of settlements that would likely end up in its hands as part of any peace treaty with the Palestinians.

The United States, which is seeking a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front after taking a hands-off approach for most of the past seven years, has taken a dim view of additional Israeli building.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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