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Abbas warns of unilateral steps if Israel continues settlement building

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned to take more unilateral steps if Israel does not agree to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking ahead of talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Abbas said Palestinians were ready to take "difficult" measures, but did not specify what they were.

Negotiations foundered in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land it captured in a 1967 war and on which they intend to establish an independent state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

Abbas said that if Israel agreed to halt settlement building and recognise "the vision and borders of the two-state solution", Palestinians would agree immediately to negotiations.

"If they don't ... there are measures that we could take. But we will not declare them now because they have not been finalized. But we will take measures that could be difficult," Abbas told a group of judges in Ramallah.

He said the two sides had until Jan. 26 to make progress. The date marks the three-month deadline, agreed on Oct. 26, for them to make proposals on issues of territory and security, with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of this year.

Can Jordan replace Egypt?

Jordan is seeking to boost its international image by hosting the rare Israeli-Palestinian meeting and take over the role of mediator long played by Egypt under former president Hosni Mubarak, analysts say.

Amman is the venue for the first face-to-face meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 16 months in a peace process that has been dead in the water for more than a year over the question of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

“Jordan wants to prove it can take over the role played by Mubarak’s Egypt and even compete with Turkey,” Mohammed Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

Egypt hosted several Palestinian-Israeli meetings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh over the years, while Turkey has showed interest in overseeing the talks.
While never having relinquished its role as middleman since Mubarak’s fall in February, Cairo under the military junta now in power is preoccupied by domestic instability.

The Islamist parties likely to form a new civilian government will also have those problems to contend with, and while not disavowing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, they are less likely to be inclined to act as an honest broker.

“Jordan is trying to fill quickly the vacuum left by Egypt and to gain the benefits” after the fall of Mubarak’s regime in February, said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst in Jordan.

Political analyst Hassan Barari says the meeting, which comes two weeks ahead of a planned visit by King Abdullah II to the United States, will enable the monarch to “prove his pivotal role in establishing peace, especially with the demise of the Egyptian role.”

It is also an opportunity for Jordan to show that any normalization with Hamas will not affect Amman’s recognition of the Palestinian Authority.

At the same time, Jordan will maintain its relations with Israel under their 1994 peace treaty, regardless of a reform process initiated by the kingdom.

Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh said in November that the expulsion of Hamas leaders from the country in 1999 was “a constitutional and political error.”

Since then, a visit to Amman by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that is being organized under Qatari mediation has been repeatedly announced as “imminent.”

Israel did not hide its anxiety about such a development, and a meeting in Amman in November between Israeli President Shimon Peres and King Abdullah helped calm Israeli fears.

A week before that, the king made a rare visit to Ramallah, which has been seen as an attempt to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority as representative of the Palestinian people.

“Jordan is sending a clear message to Hamas that welcoming Meshaal will not change Jordan’s vision and role in the peace process,” said Barari.

For Masri, “Amman is clearly telling Hamas and other Palestinian organizations that it is committed to peace.”

Tuesday’s meeting is also a message to the country’s opposition Islamists, who were recently accused of “creating provocations” after young members demonstrated in Amman, wearing on their foreheads green bands, which is the color of Islam.

The demonstration in the city center last Friday has raised fears of an Islamist militia in Jordan.

“The message is that the reform process in Jordan will not involve serious compromises” in the peace with Israel, said Kuttab.

Jordan’s Islamist movement, the main opposition party in Jordan, has strongly denounced the meeting between “the Zionist enemy and the Palestinian Authority,” and demanded that Jordanian authorities “provide explanations on the cost of hosting this meeting.”