Israel, Palestinians hold first talks in 15 months

Jordan's foreign minister says the first meetings between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators in more than a year have ended without any significant breakthroughs, but the two sides agreed to keep talking.

Jordan says no breakthroughs made in negotiations

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat attends a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

No breakthroughs emerged Tuesday from the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in more than a year, the foreign minister of host Jordan said, adding the two sides agreed to keep talking.

Talks have been stalled since late 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlement construction.

The minister, Nasser Judeh, said the talks were held in a positive atmosphere. Although there were no breakthroughs on matters of "substance," he said, "the important thing is the two sides have met face to face."

"We agreed that the discussions will be continuous," he said, "and will take place here in Jordan."

Resumption of any kind of contacts would be seen as an achievement, though the two sides remain far from agreement on key issues like borders, security, Palestinian refugees and settlements. The 15 months without negotiations have seen a progressive souring of the atmosphere, as Palestinians blame Israel for the deadlock and Israel charges the Palestinians with trying to delegitimize the Jewish state through propaganda campaigns and unilateral diplomatic initiatives.

The Israelis and Palestinians agreed to send their chief negotiators to Jordan under pressure from the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia, though there was no sign either was softening its positions.

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.

Talks have been stalled since September 2010, when a 10-month Israeli moratorium on new construction in settlements expired.

The Palestinians have refused to return to the table while Israel builds in its 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.

Israel insists on talks without prior conditions.

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.

Palestinian officials have said they are considering resuming their push for UN 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 UN Security Council last September to admit them as a full member state in the UN, but the UN 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 UN.

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 UN, saying an independent Palestinian state can be created only through negotiations.

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 came 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.