Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, Israel’s special envoy for peace talks, delivers letter from prime minister to Palestinian Authority president in Ramallah outlining Israeli stance on stalled talks • Move comes just days after Israel forms unity government • Abbas asks U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene on behalf of Palestinians on hunger strike.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority issued a rare joint statement on Saturday, saying they were committed to peace after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dispatched an envoy to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to deliver a letter detailing his government’s stance on stalled peace negotiations.
“I hope we can advance the dialogue between the two sides in order to renew peace talks,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, the first to include newly appointed Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz since Kadima joined the coalition.
Netanyahu’s envoy, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, carried a letter from the prime minister replying to one he received last month from Abbas, in which the Palestinian leader stated his grievances over the collapse of peace talks in 2010 and laid out his parameters for renewing negotiations.
Details of Netanyahu’s letter were not released, but Israeli officials said last week that they did not expect him to accept a key Palestinian demand to halt all settlement construction in Judea and Samaria and east Jerusalem before the resumption of talks.
Netanyahu’s office issued a joint statement with the Palestinians after envoy Molcho met Abbas.
“Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to achieving peace and the sides hope that the exchange of letters between President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu will further this goal,” the statement said.
Abbas’ letter had demanded a halt to Israeli settlement construction on land Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, which Palestinians seek for their future state, and accused Israel of showing a lack of commitment to the decades-old peace process, officials said. Abbas also demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners and a resumption of negotiations based on 1967 lines.
Netanyahu has repeatedly called on Abbas to return to talks without any preconditions and promised that Israel was ready to make concessions, if the Palestinians would also compromise.
Few diplomats expect any breakthrough ahead of U.S. presidential elections in November, yet the surprise formation of a national unity government in Israel last week has provided a slight flicker of hope. Netanyahu stunned the political establishment on May 8 by joining forces with the main opposition group, the centrist Kadima party, to form one of the biggest coalitions in Israeli history.
The head of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, has long blamed Netanyahu for the failure of the peace talks and told reporters last week that entering new negotiations “was an iron condition for forming the unity government.”
Molcho held talks with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinians’ government. The modest exchange was the highest-level communication between the Palestinians and Israelis in months.
The Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee was scheduled to convene later Sunday to discuss the letter, Ma’an news agency reported.
The exchange of letters between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders was part of efforts by the Quartet to lure both sides back to the negotiating table after a long impasse in peace talks. The last meeting between the sides was four months ago, when preliminary meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials in the Jordanian capital Amman broke down.
Israel has frequently called for a resumption of peace talks without preconditions, saying the issue of settlements should be discussed along with other core issues during negotiations.
In his letter, Netanyahu outlined Israel’s demands for security arrangements that would need to be agreed upon as part of any final deal.
Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said over the weekend that during a telephone conversation between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu on Saturday evening, Clinton expressed Washington’s desire for progress in peace talks.
Clinton also spoke with Abbas on Saturday night, during which the PA president asked her to intervene on behalf of Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails, according to Israel Radio.
Palestinian officials said Egyptian mediators have been trying to work out a solution with Israelis and Palestinians to end the mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners. An Israeli official confirmed talks were taking place but would not elaborate.
Some 1,600 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails are holding a hunger strike to demand better conditions and to end their imprisonment. The Egyptian-brokered talks are the first substantive negotiations meant to resolve the strike since it began weeks ago — and in some cases months ago.
Two men, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, have been striking for more than 70 days. Both are members of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Israelis and maimed many more in suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks.
It is not clear whether Halhaleh and Diab were involved in any terrorist activity because they are being held under “administrative detention,” a policy that can keep some Palestinian prisoners in custody for months — even years — without charges. Israel has defended administrative detentions as a necessary tool to stop terrorist activity.
Former British Prime Minister and Quartet representative Tony Blair said in a statement Saturday that he was “increasingly concerned about the deteriorating health conditions” of Palestinian hunger strikers.
He said he had recently “engaged Israeli officials at all levels urging them to take all necessary measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security conditions on the ground.”
According to prison officials, at least 1,600 of the 4,600 Palestinians held by Israel are refusing food. Palestinians say about 2,500 prisoners are taking part in the hunger strike.
On Sunday, dozens of Palestinians protested outside the U.N. headquarters and Red Cross in Gaza, demanding that they intervene to save the hunger-striking prisoners.
Israel is hesitant to clinch a deal with the prisoners, fearing it will encourage more strikes. Many of the Palestinians striking have been convicted of involvement in deadly attacks against civilians.
Israel’s Prison Service says the striking Palestinians are under constant medical supervision and are in stable condition.