Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume peace talks with Israel only after US Secretary of State John Kerry gave him a letter guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations will be Israel’s pre-1967 borders, two senior Palestinian officials said on Saturday.
A Western official, however, later denied that the 1967 lines would be the basis of negotiations.
The Palestinian officials, both of whom are close to the Palestinian leader and privy to internal discussions, said the US letter also stipulated that both sides are to refrain from taking any steps that would jeopardize the outcome of the talks. Israel is not to issue new tenders for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Palestinians are not to pursue diplomatic action against Israel at any international organizations, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media.
“The talks with Kerry were about to collapse, and the letter came as a lifeline in the last-minute bargaining,” one of the Palestinian officials said.
US officials have said in the past that Kerry would reiterate standing US positions on the goals for renewed talks, including that a Palestinian state should be negotiated on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem.
There was no immediate comment from the US Department of State, though a Western official denied the Palestinian officials’ claim about the 1967 borders.
“There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the ’67 lines will be the basis for negotiations,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the official had no authorization to speak to the media.
After a round of intense shuttle diplomacy, Kerry announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a basis for returning to the peace process, which broke down five years ago.
The Palestinians long refused to return to the negotiating table unless Israel agreed to several preconditions, including that the talks be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Israel frequently called for talks to resume without preconditions, insisting that all core issues should be resolved through dialogue.
Speculation has been rife for weeks that the sides would find a way to sidestep Israel’s reluctance to offer assurances of the 1967 lines as the framework for talks by having the guarantee provided by the US.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces sharp opposition from within his majority coalition to such a move. One key ally, Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, has threatened to pull his Jewish Home Party out of the government altogether if the prime minister agrees to the border conditions.
Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday evening welcoming Kerry’s announcement and thanking him for his efforts, saying he “views the resumption of the political process at this time a vital strategic interest.”
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz offered a few details on the framework.
He confirmed that Israel would release some Palestinian prisoners, but said it will not meet other long-standing Palestinian demands before negotiations resume, such as a settlement freeze or defining the 1967 borders as the basis for talks.
Steinitz said a nine-month timetable was agreed to for the talks to prevent them from collapsing along the way.