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Palestinians ready to extend talks with Israel

Dec. 19, 2013 at 1:00 AM   |   Comments

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BEIT JALA, West Bank, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- The chief Palestinian peace negotiator says his side is ready to extend current talks with Israel beyond the U.S. deadline if a framework for peace is in place.

"April 29 is [the] time for a framework agreement," Saeb Erekat told foreign reporters in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, 6 miles south of Jerusalem.

"We are not talking about a final peace treaty but only a framework agreement, which is halfway to a final treaty," Erekat said, explaining the Palestinian Authority wanted the framework to define borders, land swaps, security coordination, the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the proposed Palestinian state.

Erekat's comments marked the first time the Palestinian governing body endorsed the U.S. proposal to seek a preliminary peace deal after nine months, rather than a final accord.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed the framework idea last week when he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

When Israeli-Palestinian negotiations started in July, Kerry said their nine-month goal was to forge a final agreement in the long-running conflict.

Erekat said Israelis and Palestinians should be able to reach a framework deal by April if Israel decides it prefers peace over settlement construction.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Jerusalem's chief negotiator in the talks, told university students last week her choice was "clear -- peace and security, and not settlements and isolation."

Since the talks started five months ago, Israel has said it plans to build nearly 6,000 West Bank housing units.

Erekat predicted if the framework is worked out by April, both sides would likely conclude a full treaty six to 12 months later.

He declined to give details about the talks, saying both sides promised Kerry they would keep the meetings confidential.

But he disputed news reports Palestinian officials considered Kerry to have a pro-Israel bias, saying Kerry's participation was critical to the talks' staying on track.

"The difference this time is John Kerry. This man made a difference in terms of his relentless efforts and unwavering commitment," Erekat said in remarks quoted by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, adding, "I can tell you that John Kerry is not pushing the Israeli positions."

Erekat also warned if talks don't lead to a framework deal by April, the P.A. will consider itself free to resume promoting its statehood cause with the United Nations.

Under the deal Kerry brokered to restart the talks, the P.A. agreed to suspend its U.N. campaign during the talks' nine months.

Erekat added he knew a signed treaty would not mean an immediate Israeli pullout from the occupied territories.

"When a treaty is signed, there will be an incremental Israeli withdrawal," he said. "And when [the pullout] is final, Palestine will be a sovereign state."

Netanyahu responded cautiously to Erekat's Wednesday remarks.

"I can't promise that an agreement will be reached. It depends on the other side as well," he said in remarks quoted by Israel's Ynetnews website.

"I can commit to one thing -- if an agreement is reached it will be brought to the Knesset and subjected to a referendum. I've made that commitment. We will not make such a decision without all-round agreement," Netanyahu said.

The Knesset the Israeli Parliament.

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