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Mideast peace process at lowest point: Palestinian PM; Ashton says no impasse in talks

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The Middle East peace process is at its lowest point in two decades and the events of the Arab Spring have forced it down the world agenda, the Palestinian prime minister complained Thursday as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the end of informal talks between Palestinians and Israel does not mean the two sides have reached an “impasse.”

Salam Fayyad, a moderate whose remit does not extend beyond the West Bank, told delegates at the Davos forum of global business leaders that the peace process was desperately in need of outside help.

But, speaking at the same debate, Israeli President Shimon Peres said it would be better if world powers left the two sides alone and let them get on with direct negotiations, convinced that a solution was still within reach.

The peace process has been effectively in the deep freeze since the end of September 2010, several weeks after it was re-launched to great fanfare under the mediation of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Efforts by the international quartet to coax both sides back to talks have failed to bear fruit while the Arab uprisings have changed the regional dynamic -- particular with the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time president and a rare friend of Israel in the Arab world.

Slowest point

Fayyad told delegates that things had never been so bad since the start of the peace negotiations in 1991 that eventually led to the Oslo accord in 1993.

“There must be hope, we have to maintain hope. If you are Palestinian, hope is something that must be part of conscious decision-making,” said Fayyad.

“But right now one would have to really work hard to be hopeful as to where the political process is.”

“Since the beginning of Oslo, the political process has never been so lacking in focus.”

“Obviously we need to sit down and negotiate but it’s recognized that we need a significant amount of international help and chaperoning in order to do this.”

Peres, who won the Nobel peace prize for helping negotiate the Oslo accords, said the gap between the two sides had been “seriously narrowed and neither Palestinians or Israelis have any serious alternative but to make peace.”

But he was cool on outside involvement, saying the peace quartet -- which groups the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Russia -- should not try to put pressure to bring the sides together.

“I think right now the major diplomatic effort should be done between the two of us because the quartet has its own split because there are elections in the United States and Russia,” said Peres, a former Israeli prime minister whose current position is largely symbolic.

“There’s a danger that if things are done under pressure, we will have an absurd situation.”

Peres said the international community would be better off putting pressure on Iran to stop what he regarded as its interference in the Gaza Strip by supporting its hardline Islamist rulers Hamas.

Peres said the redrawing of the Middle East political map could work to Israel’s favor if the new regimes tackle deep-rooted poverty.

“The real problem in the Arab world is poverty not politics,” he said. “I am convinced that if the Arab world has better conditions Israel has a better chance of living in peace.”

But Fayyad said the Palestinian cause was taking a back seat in the region as Arab governments try and come to terms with the popular revolts which swept the region last year.

“There’s much better understanding of the need to have a responsible, responsive government” in the Arab world after the uprisings, said Fayyad.

“But it seems to me that an immediate consequence of the Arab Spring, our cause has been marginalized by it in a substantial way.

“I do not recall that the Palestinian cause has been as marginalized in the way that it has been for many decades.

“We must work out how do we deal with this marginalization... It may take quite a number of years before the region settles down with a better state of equilibrium.”

No Impasse

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Ashton said on Thursday the Palestinians’ announcement that they were ending informal talks with Israel does not mean the two sides have reached an “impasse.”

“I do not think there is an impasse. I know that president (Mahmoud) Abbas is thinking carefully about how to move forward. For him the meeting of the Arab (League) Follow Up Committee in Cairo is extremely important,” Ashton told reporters after meeting with Abbas in Amman.

“I know he is hoping that Israel will recognize that gestures can make a difference. But meeting with him and meeting with the Israelis I still remain hopeful that with good will they can continue to talk, so not a dead end but certainly there needs to be momentum.”

The outcome of Ashton’s talks with Abbas was not immediately clear.

But it was expected to be a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Palestinians not to abandon a series of exploratory talks with Israel over the possibility of renewing direct negotiations.

The meeting took place as a deadline for Israel and the Palestinians to submit proposals on borders and security, which the Middle East Quartet of diplomatic peacemakers had set three months ago, expires on Thursday.

“The question for this particular phase of very informal discussions is how to inspire confidence in the process in both directions, and I think that is what is being discussed,” said Ashton, who also met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met late on Wednesday in Amman for their fifth meeting in just over three weeks, after which the Palestinians ruled out any further talks.

“Today’s meeting was the last and there will be no further exploratory talks with the Israeli side,” a senior Palestinian official told AFP after those talks.

“All these meetings have gone nowhere because Israel has moved not one step to enable a resumption of negotiations,” he said on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinians say they have presented their proposals on territory and security within the timeline announced by the Quartet on Oct. 26, and accuse Israel of not reciprocating.

Following a meeting on Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Abbas appeared to soften his long-standing position on renewing direct talks with Israel -- saying talks were possible if the Jewish state would agree on a formula for borders.

“If we determine the borders, it is possible to return to negotiations, but the Israelis don't want to determine the borders,” he said in comments published by the Palestinians’ official WAFA news agency.

Until now, the Palestinians have said they will agree to return to the negotiating table only if Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and if it accepts the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War as the basis for discussions on future borders.

Israeli officials refused to discuss the content of Wednesday night’s negotiations, but Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Thursday urged Abbas not to put an end to the talks.

“Continuing the talks with the Palestinians is the only way to achieve a breakthrough. President Abbas must not put an end to these talks,” he said in a posting on his official Twitter page.

Ashton met with Netanyahu on Wednesday night, with the premier insisting he was also looking for ways to ensure the channels of communication were kept open.

“We have been trying to make sure the talks between us and the Palestinians continue,” he told reporters in brief remarks before sitting down with Ashton. “This is our design and I look forward to discussing it with you to make sure this is what happens.”

Ashton described the Jordanian-sponsored talks as “important opportunities” and stressed she would push for them to continue.

“I am a passionate believer that we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations,” she said earlier in the day.

Abbas said on Wednesday the Palestinians would now enter “a phase of evaluations and consultations” King Abdullah, at the end of which there would be talks with the Arab League Follow-up Committee, scheduled for Feb. 4.

“There we will take the decision,” he said.