Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was to confer with Palestinian leaders yesterday about a possible resumption of peace negotiations with Israel after an almost three-year freeze, officials said.
They gave no details on what Abbas’ terms might be, should he announce a breakthrough after meeting in Jordan with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has pursued six months of intensive and deliberately discreet back-and-forth diplomacy.
Gaps between the sides had “very significantly” narrowed, Kerry said on Wednesday.
His proposals to resume negotiations, which were not spelled out, won the endorsement of an Arab League committee, which said they “provide the ground and a suitable environment to start negotiations.”
Abbas was due to convene senior members of the umbrella Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and his Fatah party at 3pm in Ramallah, hub city of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and seat of his US-backed self-rule administration.
Abbas, whose peace strategy is routinely censured by his Palestinian Islamist rivals ruling the Gaza Strip, has in the past sought Arab League support to engage the Jewish state.
It was not clear whether Wednesday’s endorsement would give him enough political cover to resume direct talks.
“We are expecting to hear from the president the ideas presented by Kerry,” top PLO member Wasel Abu Yousef said. “There will be a discussion on these ideas, and everyone will say what he thinks about this. The conclusion will be by a general consensus.”
Negotiations, which have ebbed and flowed for two decades, last broke down in late 2010 over Israel’s West Bank settlements and other sticking points. Since then, Abbas at times has insisted that Israel renew and extend a halt on settlement construction for new talks to be held. Israel ruled that out.
Palestinians familiar with Abbas’ thinking speculated he might forgo the demand for a construction halt given a recent slowdown in housing starts issued by the Israeli government — though it may still be painful to roll back his previous demand.
If Abbas yields on the issue, it may be in exchange for a goodwill gesture from Israel, such as amnesty for veteran PLO fighters long held in its jails.
Israel gave no sign such prisoner releases were in the offing, but major Israeli broadcaster Army Radio said some West Bank roadblocks could be dismantled to ease Palestinian travel.
“These things have always been possible as part of the overall picture,” Israeli Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom told the station in response to the report. “If defense authorities assess that such a thing would not harm security, then of course we have the ability to take such steps.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is ready to resume peacemaking immediately and “without preconditions.”
Israel has long insisted it would keep swathes of West Bank settlements under any eventual peace accord. Most world powers deem the settlements illegal and the EU announced a plan on Tuesday to bar financial assistance to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied territories.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu “attacked” the plan on Wednesday in conversations with European leaders where he argued that other “burning issues” like the Syrian civil war and disputed Iranian nuclear program should take precedence.
Israeli officials were lobbying intensively to try to persuade the EU to postpone, if not soften, the sanctions.
Israel granted initial approval for new homes in Modiin Ilit, a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem and part of the territorial blocs it wants to annex eventually.
Kerry, on his sixth Middle East mission, was upbeat.
“We have been able to narrow these gaps very significantly,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “And so we continue to get closer and I continue to remain hopeful that the sides can soon be able to come and sit at the same table.”