Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried Sunday to revive stalled peace talks, meeting after Israel extracted a formal Palestinian denial of reports that the Jewish state had agreed to stop building settlements.
The session had been announced Saturday but was quickly overshadowed by the dispute over the alleged Israeli promise.
Israeli media had reported that the government agreed to freeze settlement construction--which would contradict repeated statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both sides later said the reports were false.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s office threatened to cancel the meeting unless the Palestinians formally denied one Palestinian official’s comment, quoted by Israeli radio stations, that Israel had accepted “a pause” in construction.
Informed of the Israeli protest, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied Israel had agreed to such a freeze. “I wish they did. They did not.”
Netanyahu’s office then issued a statement saying: “In the wake of the denial, the Israeli delegation is leaving for Cairo.”
The session began about 90 minutes late at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s Unity Palace, an Israeli diplomat said. It lasted 2 1/2 hours, Egypt’s Middle East News Agency reported. Egyptian security forces banned journalists from the palace during the talks.
In Israel, Yitzhak Levy, a legislator from a party in Netanyahu’s coalition, said Sunday that stopping construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank would bring down the government.
Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled since March, when Israel broke ground for a 6,500-unit Jewish housing complex in a disputed part of Jerusalem called Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic.
Before the talks, Israeli negotiator Dani Naveh said Israel was doing everything it could to restart the peace process but insisted it could not back down on the principle “that we have the full right to strengthen Jerusalem.”
Erekat made clear that the Palestinians needed some signal of compromise on the settlement issue to renew the peace talks.
“Our position is still the same: We want a total cessation of settlement activities,” he said. “We hope that the Israeli government will accept our position in order to give the peace process a chance of success.”