Israel took a step towards renewing peace talks with the Palestinians on Tuesday by agreeing to regular bilateral meetings that would discuss the “development of a political horizon” aimed at ending their conflict.
However, the talks formula fell short of Israeli acceptance of renewed negotiations on substantive issues such as the future status of Jerusalem or the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said at the end of three days of shuttle diplomacy that Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, had agreed to hold twice-monthly meetings that she would attend occasionally.
The talks would cover day-to-day issues but the “parties will also begin to discuss the development of a political horizon, consistent with the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the roadmap”, said Ms Rice, referring to an international peace plan that has never been implemented.
Mr Olmert had previously ruled out political talks with Mr Abbas following the establishment of a Palestinian Authority national unity government that includes Hamas, regarded by both the US and Israel as a terrorist organisation.
The Israeli leader had said his contacts with Mr Abbas, who is not included in the Israeli boycott of the PA, would be limited to discussion of security and humanitarian issues.
Ms Rice said: “As I’ve noted before, we are not yet at final status negotiations. These are initial discussions to build confidence between the parties.”
She said Palestinians must know that their future state would be viable and Israelis must know that it would not represent a threat.
Ms Rice’s diplomatic moves came as Arab leaders started arriving in Riyadh for a summit that will revive a 2002 Saudi-sponsored peace offer proposing normal ties with the Jewish state if it withdraws from Arab land occupied in 1967 and agrees to a “just” solution to the thorny issue of Palestinian refugees.
The peace initiative is designed as a general framework, with details to be negotiated by the parties directly involved.
Officials from the so-called Arab quartet, which comprises Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been urging Washington to press Israel to resume substantive negotiations on a Palestinian state as they relaunch the Arab initiative. Senior Arab officials say this would bolster their peace offer and encourage gradual moves towards better relations between Israel and Arabs.
In meetings with the Arab quartet at the weekend, Ms Rice urged contact with Israel to reassure the Israeli government and public of Arab intentions for peace.
But Arab officials say that Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive to any form of public contact before peace agreements are reached or at least substantive Palestinian-Israeli peace talks are back on track. Officials say it is unlikely that the Saudis would sit around the table with Israelis at any peace conference – an idea now under consideration – before substantive progress had been made in Israeli-Palestinian bilateral peace talks. One Arab foreign minister said: “The situation is very complex and no one has [any] appetite for normalisation before the Palestinian-Israeli track is revived. People want real engagement and a real process.”
Saudi Arabia is looking for a more effective mechanism to market the peace offer this time, involving working groups that can also hold contacts with “all parties”.
This means that meetings with Israelis could well take place to promote the initiative, though only countries with ties to Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, are likely to participate.
The Arab quartet has also been pressing Hamas, the partner in the Palestinian government coalition, to state clearly its support for the peace initiative.
Hamas officials say they are not opposed to the Arab initiative and have said that they would respect previous agreements signed by Palestinians.
But more direct and clear support would also bring them closer to a recognition of Israel, to which they have thus far refused to commit.
The Arab foreign minister added: “We need Hamas to join the Arab consensus.”