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Israel, PLO square up as peace deadline looms

April 28, 2014 8:24 P.M. (Updated: April 29, 2014 9:41 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel and the PLO appeared determined Monday to seal their divorce as Washington's deadline for reaching a Mideast peace deal was to expire, leaving hopes for a breakthrough in tatters.

After more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry with the initial aim of brokering a deal by April 29, Washington's patience appeared to be growing thin as both sides moved to distance themselves from the crisis-hit talks.

Speaking to a closed meeting of international figures, Kerry reportedly said that if Israel didn't seize the opportunity to make peace soon, it risked becoming an "apartheid state," a US news website reported.

"A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens —- or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," he said, according to a transcript obtained by The Daily Beast and published late Sunday.

Apartheid is the term for the system of racial segregation put in place by the white supremacist regime in South Africa from 1948 until the country's first all-race elections in 1994.

Although the process was at a point of "confrontation and hiatus," Kerry insisted it was not dead -- yet.

The sword of reconciliation

But both the Palestinians and the Israelis appear to have drawn their own conclusions about the life expectancy of the US-led negotiations, which have made no visible progress since they began nine months ago.

Last week, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip announced a surprise unity deal aimed at ending years of occasionally violent rivalry.

Israel denounced the deal as a deathblow to peace hopes and said it would not negotiate with any government backed by the Islamist movement. Washington called the deal "unhelpful".

Under the agreement, the PLO and Hamas will work to establish a new unity government of political independents which would be headed by President Mahmud Abbas, whose Fatah party dominates the PLO.

It would recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing agreements, in line with the key principles set out by the Mideast peacemaking Quartet.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out any negotiation with the new government unless Hamas accepts Israel, forcing Abbas to chose between the two.

Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erakat accused Israel of using reconciliation as a weapon during the talks.

"Every day they were asking: what would you do with Gaza?" he told Voice of Palestine.

"So if peace cannot be achieved without Gaza, and it cannot be achieved with Gaza, then there is an Israeli aim here, and that is not achieving peace."

Meanwhile, in remarks in Gaza on Monday, Mussa Abu Marzouk, a top Cairo-based Hamas leader, reaffirmed that the unity government would "not be political."

An unwise response

He said its mandate would be primarily to prepare for elections within six months, restructuring the security services and overseeing the reconstruction of the battered Gaza Strip.

Tzahi HaNegbi, an MP close to Netanyahu, told army radio Israel should "wait to understand the meaning" of the Palestinian unity deal.

"Israel must act intelligently and with restraint, and not to play into the Palestinians' hands by helping them out of the trap into which they have fallen," he said.

Other commentators criticized the Israeli leader's handling of the crisis.

"His first response was: either Hamas or the peace process. This was not the wisest response," wrote Ben-Dror Yemini in Maariv newspaper.

Instead of a negative response, Netanyahu could have "embarrassed" the Palestinians by expressing support and an outstretched hand, which they would most likely have rejected, he wrote.

"Israel would have scored points in the blame game," he added. Instead, Netanyahu's remarks had simply painted Israel as "a rejectionist of peace."

Israel and Washington are reportedly at odds over the proposed new Palestinian government, with US officials waiting to see whether it will embrace the Quartet's principles.

In a separate but related development, the PLO late Sunday said it would pursue efforts to sign up to another 60 UN bodies and international agreements. There was no immediate Israeli response.

One of Israel's conditions for agreeing to the US-backed talks was that the Palestinians refrain from pursuing recognition in UN and international bodies.
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