AMMAN: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gather in the Jordanian capital on Tuesday for their first face-to-face meeting in 16 months, but both sides insisted full-blown talks remained some way off.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, who was to host the meeting between Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho and his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat, said it was a "serious" bid to help relaunch moribund peace talks.
"We do not want to raise expectations, but holding the meetings between the Palestinians and Israelis is a Jordanian interest first and foremost," Judeh said, quoted by the government-owned Jordan Times newspaper.
"Our objective is to bring them together and try to push for a breakthrough in the peace talks."
Quartet envoy Tony Blair was also to attend the session in Amman, along with other officials of the grouping, made up of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.
"It is a serious effort to find a common ground between the two sides and help restart direct peace talks," said Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Kayed, whose country has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor, who holds the intelligence portfolio and is also deputy prime minister, told public radio that the meeting is "a positive development."
He said the meeting did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks, but expressed hope it would be a springboard which would "allow the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
"We were not asked to make declarations at the preliminary talks," he said, indicating that only in the context of actual negotiations would Israel lay out its positions.
Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio.
"This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations.
Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations," he said.
"This is a valuable opportunity for peace and Israel shouldn’t waste it and once again be the reason for the failure of efforts by the international community, by the Quartet and by Jordan, to resume the negotiations."
Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank settlement construction expired and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to renew it.
"We will see what the Quartet’s position will be in this meeting and if it is willing to seriously address the obstacles to the peace process and negotiations put by Israel …" PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine.
Late on Monday, Abbas told US envoy David Hale in Ramallah there would be no resumption of talks unless Israel froze its construction and accepts the 1967 borders as the basis for peace talks, a Palestinian official told AFP.
The Quartet has been trying to draw the two sides back to negotiations, asking them for comprehensive proposals on territory and security.
"We are hopeful that this direct exchange can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday, urging the two sides to "act boldly to advance the cause of peace."
But Abed Rabbo said Washington wants to talks to restart "without any pre-conditions or promises on settlement expansion."
"This does not fulfill the conditions for a resumption of negotiations nor does it enable any negotiations to succeed," he said.
The meeting sparked an angry reaction from the Islamist Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas’s forces in 2007 and had been inching towards a reconciliation deal with the Palestinian leadership.
"We demand a boycott of this meeting," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP. "Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure."
The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was also strongly critical of the meeting, calling it a "fatal error" which would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game.