Israelis, Palestinians endorse Arab peace plan

 25 Mar 2014 - 5:10

A new cement block (centre) is lowered into place as repair work on Israel’s controversial separation barrier takes place after Palestinian protesters opened a hole two days ago, at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, yesterday.

JERUSALEM: A newly formed group of Israeli and Palestinian politicians yesterday urged the Arab League to renew a comprehensive peace offer to Israel, saying such a gesture would give a much-needed boost to troubled US-backed peace talks.
The group called on the Arab League to make a bold statement at its summit in Kuwait this week, saying this would pressure negotiators to consider the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The landmark plan offered Israel peace with dozens of Arab and Muslim countries in exchange for a withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
In a letter released yesterday, the group said the initiative “provides the fundamental foundation for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace”. Known as the Prague Forum, the group consists of Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab parliamentarians. It was unveiled after over 40 politicians and leaders began secret meetings in Prague in February.
Hilik Bar, chair of the Knesset Caucus for the Solution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, praised the new coalition for its efforts. “It’s one thing to have a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine,” said Bar, a member of the opposition Labour Party. “It’s another thing to have Israel and Palestine as a joint partner in a much bigger neighbourhood.”
Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks last July, agreeing to talk for nine months. The current round of peace talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry have faced daunting challenges as both sides spar over the drawing of future borders, the status of Palestinian refugees, security arrangements and Israel’s demand that it be recognised as a Jewish state. 
After months of deadlock, Kerry has given up hopes of brokering a deal and is scrambling to persuade the sides to agree to extend talks beyond his original April deadline. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for a future state. They have demanded that a future border with Israel be based on the pre-1967 lines.
The Arab initiative could theoretically provide a way out of the deadlock. Last year, shortly before peace talks resumed, Kerry persuaded the Arab League to renew its offer and sweeten it by saying Israel and the Palestinians could modify their final border away from the 1967 lines through mutually agreed land swaps.
Kerry praised the gesture at the time. But Israel has never formally responded. Mohammed Al Madani, who heads an official governmental committee in charge of outreach to Israel, accused the Israeli government of “foot-dragging” and “wasting time” while diminishing the prospect of a feasible agreement. “We continue to speak of a just peace,” he said, “but we don’t see it.”
Meanwhile, a majority of Palestinians would support extending peace talks with Israel beyond an  April deadline, but only in exchange for the release of additional prisoners, according to a poll published yesterday.
Without this condition, most Palestinians would reject extending the faltering negotiations. Some 65 percent of 1,200 Palestinian adults interviewed this month by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research would support talks running to the end of the year “if Israel agrees to release more Palestinian prisoners”.
Israel pledged, when talks began in July, to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four batches, in exchange for the Palestinians refraining from pursuing legal action against the Jewish state in international courts. 
But after the release of a total of 78 inmates so far, Israeli cabinet ministers have warned that the remaining prisoners will not be freed on March 29 unless the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Palestinians have rejoiced at the releases, seeing the inmates’ imprisonment as political, but Israelis have criticised the government for freeing men who were convicted of killing Israeli civilians. Should there be no releases beyond the 104 already agreed, 55 percent of Palestinians would reject carrying on the talks, the survey said.
And a narrow majority of 51 percent would support talks continuing if Israel froze its settlement construction in the occupied West Bank — a key sticking point that has angered Palestinian negotiators, and derailed the last round of talks in 2010. The poll was conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between March 20-22, and had a three percent error margin.