Chief Israeli, Palestinian envoys meet in Jordan

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd gathered for the opening of a research center in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Jan. 3, 2012. AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi

AMMAN, Jordan - The chief Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators on Tuesday were holding their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year, searching for a formula to restart long-stalled negotiations.

With prospects for a breakthrough appearing dim, the Palestinian president threatened to take "new measures" against Israel at the end of the month. Nonetheless, Tuesday's meeting, in the presence of international diplomats, marked the strongest chance in months for reviving talks.

Jordan's Foreign Ministry said Israel's Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian envoy Saeb Erekat met with envoys from the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Afterward, the two men met in the presence of their Jordanian host, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, to exchange positions on key issues of security and borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

A diplomat who attended the larger meeting said the talks were "serious."

"It was a brainstorming session in which both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, showed eagerness to restart peace negotiations," the diplomat said. He declined to elaborate and insisted on anonymity, saying a public comment could adversely affect the sensitive meeting.

The Quartet has been working for months to restart peace talks. The international group hopes to broker a final peace agreement by the end of the year.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Tuesday's talks. "The secretary-general encourages the parties to build on this meeting and to continue working to establish forward momentum toward a lasting peace," said a statement issued by his office.

For now, simply restarting a peace process would mark a significant achievement. Negotiations broke down in September 2010 after the expiration of an Israeli settlement slowdown.

The Palestinians have refused to return to the table while Israel builds settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians hope to make part of a future state. They also want Israel to commit to returning to its pre-1967 war lines as the basis for final borders.

The international community has largely backed the Palestinian positions on settlements and borders, but stopped short of making them conditions for restarting talks.

Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that if Israel accepts his conditions, "we will go to negotiations." He said the Palestinians have set a Jan. 26 deadline for talks to resume. "After that date, we will take new measures. These measures might be hard," he said.

Abbas said no decision has been made yet. Palestinian officials have said they are considering resuming their push for U.N. membership as well as ways to isolate Israel at the United Nations, such as a new resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians asked the U.N. Security Council last September to admit them as a full member state in the U.N., but the U.N. bid failed to gain enough support in the 15-member council. The Palestinians have said as an alternative, they will seek enhanced observer status at the U.N.

While acknowledging the measure is largely symbolic, the Palestinians believe a strong international endorsement would bolster their position if peace talks resume. Israel has strongly opposed the Palestinian efforts at the U.N., saying an independent Palestinian state can be created only through negotiations.

Israeli officials declined comment while the meeting was under way. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected the Palestinian demands about settlement construction, saying talks should begin immediately without preconditions.

It was not known whether either envoy would present a new formula that might be able to bridge the divide.

In September, the Quartet set forth a four-month target for the sides to present proposals on the key issues of future borders and security arrangements. The Palestinians believe the timeline expires on Jan. 26. Israel says the clock doesn't start ticking until negotiations are under way.

The meeting comes as Abbas is trying to reconcile with the militant Hamas group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007. Israel has warned it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, called on Abbas to call off Tuesday's meeting.

Jordan's King Abdullah II has implored Israel and Palestinians to resume peace talks. Abdullah is worried about the growing influence of Islamic groups in the Middle East and fears that continued deadlock in peace efforts could strengthen radicals.

Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, 13 Jordanian opposition groups comprising Muslim fundamentalists and leftist groups called for a demonstration against the talks. The groups said the Palestinians must instead carry out a third uprising or armed resistance against Israel.

Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.

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