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Israel, Palestinians Jockey Ahead of Summit

 By Charles Levinson, The Wall Street Journal

31.08.2010

Palestinian and Israeli leaders, on the eve of direct peace talks in Washington, jockeyed for position Monday with last-minute messages that they were committed to peace.

But both sides have also assured their domestic constituencies that they won't concede too much, and a disagreement over Israeli construction in the West Bank emerged as the first major test of the talks, which begin Wednesday.
 
Top Palestinian leaders, in cooperation with an Israeli peace group, rolled out an unusual U.S.-funded Hebrew-language ad campaign on Monday in which they apologized to Israelis for past mistakes and reassured them that Palestinians are committed to peace alongside Israel.
 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is facing stiff criticism at home for agreeing to enter direct talks with what many Palestinians see as insufficient guarantees from Washington and Israel, gave a passionate speech late Sunday on Palestinian television in which he pledged to withdraw from the talks if Israel doesn't extend a freeze on building in Jewish West Bank settlements that expires on Sept. 26.
 
The talks cap months of diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration to get the two sides to negotiate face to face.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, told his Likud Party that he is "ready to seek a real peace" and that only Likud could lead the country to a deal with the Palestinians.
 
He also assured party members, many of whom oppose extending the building freeze, "you have nothing to worry about." The comments were interpreted by those present and analysts as an assurance that he would allow building to resume in the settlements.
 
Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to reassure members of his conservative governing coalition that he won't extend the moratorium, but hasn't said so outright.
 
"You can't both build and not build and that's what Netanyahu appears to be trying to do," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University political science professor. "He's trying to find some sort of compromise where technically they allow building but don't actually build anything and it's hard to see how he's going to succeed at that."
 
The $250,000 Palestinian ad campaign, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was unveiled on Israeli websites on Monday. It was produced in cooperation with Palestinian officials by the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli group that mediated an unofficial model peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in 2003.
 
The campaign includes a series of video clips featuring members of Mr. Abbas's inner circle of advisers reaching out directly to Israelis, speaking Hebrew or English. The ads are running on Israeli websites with plans in coming days to include billboards in Israel and Hebrew-language newspapers, the campaign's organizers said.
 
Each 30-second video clip begins with the speaker telling Israelis, "I am your partner." In one of the clips, Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator throughout the past two decades, begins by saying, "Shalom to you in Israel.
 
"I know we have disappointed you," Mr. Erekat continues. "I know we have been unable to deliver peace for the last 19 years.…I know that peace is doable. I know that we can make it....We need you all to join us in becoming a partner in saving lives of Israelis and Palestinians." Mr. Erekat concludes, "I am your partner. Are you mine?"
 
A U.S. official said USAID had funded the campaign as part of a series of grants it gives out aimed at conflict resolution. The program also funds an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue forum and the All for Peace Radio Network, which broadcasts in Israel and the Palestinian territories in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian and aims at encouraging peace between the two parties.
 
Organizers said the campaign is aimed at the significant percentage of Israelis who doubt the Palestinians are a genuine partner for peace.
 
Members of Mr. Netanyahu's government were unimpressed. "It's just rhetoric that's not backed up by actions," a senior government official said. "The Palestinians are very good about speaking to the international community about their hope for peace, but that's not a substitute for something tangible."
 
The official said the Palestinian threat to pull out of talks if West Bank construction continued was an example of the Palestinians seeking an escape route from the negotiations.
 
Read the article online at The Wall Street Journal.