Syria Turmoil Threatens Israel-Palestinian Talks

While the war in Syria reaches new dimensions this week, negotiation continue in another long running conflict. Despite the killing of three Palestinians Monday by Israeli troops, Palestinians and Israelis continue to talk. NPR's Emily Harris explains why.

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Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians picked up again over the weekend. U.S. envoy Martin Indyk joined talks yesterday for the first time since those negotiations resumed in July. No word from the State Department on the details of that meeting.

Meantime, as NPR's Emily Harris reports, a fatal incident in a West Bank refugee camp has added new tension to the peace process.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: One week ago today, Israeli troops killed three Palestinian men in the Qalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem. Security forces, on an early morning arrest raid, were confronted by angry Palestinians throwing rocks. Israeli soldiers felt in danger, called in reinforcements, and opened fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

HARRIS: The day after formal mourning ended, the extended family of Jihad Aslan gathered in his home again, listening to verses from the Quran and remembering the 20-year-old who was shot in the chest. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were scheduled to meet the day he was killed. One of Jihad's cousins Amina Aslan said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas should have ended talks because of the deaths.

AMINA ASLAN: (Through translator) Of course, he should have stopped. These are his people that are being killed. Does he want to negotiate with Israel while all his people get killed? For whom is he negotiating then?

HARRIS: Some Palestinian officials said negotiators did meet the day of the shootings, but just long enough for the Palestinians to lodge a complaint and cancel an evening meeting. American officials say talks continued as planned. Israel won't comment. Whatever happened that day, negotiations between the two sides are still on. Longtime peace process watchers say progress will depend on each side's leader.

HUSAM ZOMLOT: The Mahmoud Abbas factor, the president factor, is very strong.

HARRIS: Husam Zomlot, a senior official in Abbas' political party, says the Palestinian president intends to lead his people to statehood through a political process. Zomlot calls the shootings in the Qalandia camp a provocation, just one of many Israeli moves he believes are aimed at getting the Palestinian side to quit the peace talks.

ZOMLOT: The settlements, the shooting in Qalandia, the shooting elsewhere, the humiliation on the - every checkpoint that you encounter, given the security level that has never been better, all these policies, they don't make sense whatsoever, except that we want the Palestinians to walk away.

HARRIS: Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that like Abbas, he is in negotiations for the long haul.

ZALMAN SHOVAL FORMER AMBASSADOR: The prime minister is truly interested to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

HARRIS: Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States, acknowledges that Netanyahu faces many critics of the peace talks within his party. But Shoval says the prime minister thinks in terms of history.

AMBASSADOR: He wants to ensure the continuity not only of the Jewish state but the Jewish people. And he understands that reaching a settlement with the Palestinians, and indirectly perhaps with large parts of the Arab world, is something for which history has selected him as Israel's prime minister in these very crucial times.

HARRIS: Shoval suggests Netanyahu might pursue a partial or temporary agreement if a final deal can't be reached. But Palestinians have expressed no interest in that. According to the text of a speech Abbas gave to his Fatah party last night, the Palestinian leader said the conflict can only be solved by creating a Palestinian State with east Jerusalem as its capital. He also said talks haven't yet gotten past both sides presenting their positions.

Outside the closed-door negotiations, in an unprecedented event this summer, a group of Israeli lawmakers hosted Palestinians at the Knesset to show support for a negotiated two-state solution. Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar heads the caucus to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. He says maybe both sides can weather internal pressures. But external factors, like Syria, could be a bigger challenge.

HILIK BAR: If Israel will be grabbed into a conflict with Syria, a conflict that will start because of an American attack, the atmosphere both in Israel and the Palestinians will be bad.

HARRIS: He says nationalistic feelings on both sides would get stronger. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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