The U.S. is seeking to bring Arab countries into efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down more than four years ago, a senior Palestinian official said Monday.
Also Monday, the Israeli government said it would resume regular transfers of millions of dollars of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, easing the economic woes for many Palestinians.
The decision could be seen as a sign of goodwill on the part of Israel and could also shore up the legitimacy of Palestinian rules should they decide to resume peace talks.
However, there are wide gaps on the terms of renewing talks. The Palestinians say Israel must freeze settlement building on lands it captured in 1967 before any negotiations can resume. Israel says the issue of settlements can be addressed during negotiations.
During a visit to the region last week, President Barack Obama sided with the Israeli view. But it is not clear how the U.S. can bring the Palestinians back to the table without a settlement freeze.
Arab countries are now being asked to help, said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a top official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“U.S. efforts will increase in coming weeks and will include other Arab parties, such as Jordan and Egypt,” Abed-Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio, adding that an Arab League delegation is to visit Washington as part of these efforts.
However, he said there would be no flexibility on Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze.
“For us, the important thing is the substance, such as the full settlement freeze and the recognition of the 1967 borders,” he said.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967 — but are ready to negotiate border changes, provided the 1967 frontier is the baseline.
Palestinian officials say they cannot return to talks without such a clear framework, arguing that open-ended negotiations will simply provide diplomatic cover to Israel to keep expanding settlements.
“We fear they (the Israelis) would waste time by getting us into a bargaining process over details and steps here and there, and in this way would waste two to three years and then get us to wait for a new U.S. administration,” Abed-Rabbo said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume talks immediately. However, he has said he will not relinquish control over east Jerusalem and has refused to recognize the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks.
For 10 months during his previous term, Netanyahu curbed settlement building as part of a U.S. push to bring the Palestinians back to the table, but negotiations never got off the ground.
Successive Israeli governments have built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to more than half a million Israelis. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, dismantling almost two dozen settlements there, but sharply restricts access to the territory.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Sunday that the Palestinians would wait two to three months to see if a new U.S. push to restart talks will yield results.
Resuming tax revenue transfers could be considered a signal of good intentions on the Israeli side.
In a brief statement, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he instructed Finance Minister Yair Lapid to resume the transfers. The monthly cash transfers are from taxes and custom duties that Israel collects on behalf of Palestinians.
The decision was announced on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and Israeli officials were not available to further comment on the decision.
Israel froze the transfers to punish Palestinians after the U.N. endorsed a de facto Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in November. Some money was released during the past few months, but it arrived late and only appeared to be transferred in response to international pressure.
Jamal Zakkout, an adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said it was believed that Israel would now transfer the money regularly.
The money, around $100 million a month, is a key part of the Palestinian government budget. The Palestinian Authority has struggled to pay tens of thousands of civil servants, the backbone of the local economy, because of a shortfall in donor aid and the delayed transfers from Israel.
If the tax transfers substantially ease the Palestinians’ budgetary problems, it would make it easier for their leaders to argue in favor of resuming peace talks.