‘Last-minute’ Mideast peace bid

The chief Palestinian peace negotiator said his first meeting with Israelis in more than a year will be a last-ditch effort to salvage the peace process and warned that the Palestinians would explore alternatives if no progress is made.

Saeb Erekat said he was holding out hope for Tuesday’s meeting in Jordan, but acknowledged his expectations were low as he reiterated his long-standing demand for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction.

Without a breakthrough, he warned, the Palestinians will be forced to examine alternatives to peace talks at the end of the month. Those could include again trying for recognition at the U.N.

“The Jordanian efforts are the last-minute efforts to salvage the situation,” Erekat warned.

Not formal talks
Erekat is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peace envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, at Tuesday’s meeting. It is the first time the sides are meeting since negotiations collapsed in September 2010.

Officials say the meeting is not a formal negotiating session. Instead, it is aimed at finding enough common ground to resume negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged both sides to “take advantage of this opportunity.”

“The need for a lasting peace is more urgent than ever. The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace,” Clinton said.

The meeting is taking place under the auspices of the Quartet, an international group that mediates Mideast peace efforts. The Quartet, consisting of the U.S., European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has been trying to revive talks for months with the goal of forging a peace deal by the end of this year.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

A short-lived round of peace talks broke down in September 2010 after an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction expired.

The Palestinians say they will not resume talks unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They say it is a sign of bad faith if Israel continues to build on the very lands the Palestinians claim for their independent state. The Palestinians also say Israel must agree to withdraw to its pre-1967 lines as the basis for the future border of the two countries.

Dialogue is ‘only way’
Israel has rejected all of the Palestinian demands and says negotiations should start without preconditions. Netanyahu has already said he opposes a return to the 1967 lines.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev expressed hope that the meeting in Jordan will “bring about as soon as possible the resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.”

“The only way to achieve peace and reconciliation is through dialogue,” he added.

While Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is nothing new, the situation has been complicated by recent developments.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in the midst of reconciliation efforts with the Hamas militant group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from his forces in 2007. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and has warned that it cannot make peace with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has sent mixed messages about Abbas’ peace efforts. Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, has said he would not stand in the way if Abbas chooses to resume negotiations.

But in Gaza on Monday, Hamas officials urged Abbas to call off the meeting in Jordan. “We ask the Palestinian Authority to give priority to the reconciliation between Palestinians and to continue to reject any meeting or negotiations with the occupation,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

The secular Jordanian regime is also eager to counter the growing Islamist influence. A failed peace process would strengthen Islamists inside Jordan and potentially spill over from the West Bank into Jordan, whose population is already heavily Palestinian.

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Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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