Palestinian leaders to vote on talks with Israel

Palestinian leaders will vote Thursday on a US plan under which peace talks with Israel will not depend on a settlement ban, a key Palestinian demand, a PLO official said.

The vote by the Palestinian leadership comes after US Secretary of State John Kerry reported a narrowing of the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians and as Israeli President Shimon Peres estimated the two sides are “within touching distance”.

“The most important of Kerry’s proposals is a renewal of talks without a halt or freeze in settlement,” according to the official.

He said that Kerry’s plan states that if settlement building continues during the talks, the Palestinians could renew their requests to join international bodies where they could seek legal action against the Jewish state.

Previously the United States has consistently opposed such “unilateral” Palestinian action.

The official said that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to convene members of his Fatah movement in the West Bank city of Ramallah to vote on Kerry’s initiative.

After that, at about 3:00 pm (1200 GMT), he would ask leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization to decide on the proposals from Kerry, who met twice this week with Abbas in Jordan.

The Palestinians have until now said that they will not renew peace talks, which have been stalled for three years, until Israel agrees to accept as a baseline the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, when it occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

They have insisted that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the occupied lands, including in east Jerusalem, which it annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel rejects such “preconditions”.

Peres made his comments in a statement in which he called on the European Union to delay adopting settlement funding curbs, saying this could jeopardise the diplomatic negotiations.

“From the latest information at my disposal, Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded in advancing the chances of renewing peace talks. We are within touching distance, “he said in a statement.

“The coming days are critical. Wait with your decision, give priority to peace,” Peres said.

The European Union is to publish new guidelines for its 28 member states on Friday that will block all funding of, or dealings with, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem.

A US State Department official said Kerry had decided to delay his return to the United States, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

“Secretary Kerry will remain in Amman on Thursday night to determine if there is additional work that requires his presence before he returns to the United States,” the official said.

In a further sign of a possible breakthrough, Israeli army radio said Thursday the military is preparing to lift some restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

“It appears that in the next few days the future of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be determined,” army radio’s reporter for the Palestinian territories reported.

“In the light of security assessments, two roads in the territories are expected shortly to be opened to Palestinian traffic; one north of Ramallah and one close to Beit Haggai,” he added, referring to a settlement near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

Following his meetings with Abbas and after outlining his latest peace proposals to Arab League officials in Amman on Wednesday, Kerry reported a narrowing of the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Through hard and deliberate, patient work, and most importantly through quiet work, we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly,” the top US diplomat told reporters.

“We continue to get closer and I continue to be hopeful that the two sides will come to sit at the same table,” he added, standing alongside his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh.

The US envoy, who has made the resumption of Middle East peace talks a priority since he took office on February 1, acknowledged that differences remained between the two sides, despite his dogged shuttle diplomacy which saw him hold hours of talks with both Abbas and Netanyahu on his visit last month.

“There are still some elements and some language that needs to be agreed upon and worked out. This is normal, and I’m not going to detail specifics,” he said.

There are no immediate plans for Kerry to visit Israel and meet Netanyahu.