Palestinians Insist On Settlement Freeze
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro now joins us from Jerusalem to see how all of this is playing out on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So let's go to the heart of really what this is all about, which is trying to get the peace process back on track. What are the Palestinians at this moment saying about that?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell yesterday in Jordan. Mitchell is in the region to get the so-called proximity talks underway, in which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will not meet face-to-face. Rather, theyll have their offers and counter-offers relayed by U.S. mediators.
Now, the Palestinians are maintaining their position that they won't enter into talks without a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As we heard in Jackie's story, thats something Israel is standing firm on. It will continue to build in what it says is the undivided capital of the Jewish state. That was Prime Minister Netanyahu's message yesterday.
The Palestinians at the point are standing firm because they say they feel this is really the only card they have to play. Let's not forget, there have been almost two decades of peace talks - direct, indirect, in any other configuration you care to mention. The Palestinians say all these talks have achieved is giving Israel a cover for settlement expansion. Left-wing Israeli governments have engaged in talks and still expanded settlements, they say, sometimes at a faster clip that the right-wing ones.
So the issue is now front and center, say the Palestinians. The United States is pressuring the Israelis on this issue, and the Palestinians say they don't want to lose that momentum. They want all settlement activity halted. The likelihood is that that won't happen. So bridging that divide is what the Americans are now trying to do.
MONTAGNE: Talk us through the issue of Jerusalem. We just heard Netanyahu speak about the Jewish people having built Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. The Palestinians officials insist that Israel's decision to continue building is a block to peace. Why is this so contentious?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem, obviously. Palestinians want the east as the capital of their future state. Israel says the entirety is its undivided capital. The international community believes that the final status of the city should only be determined through negotiations. Now, those are the Cliff's notes. But it reflects something more than just rhetoric.
You know, for example, if you listen to Israeli leaders, like Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, for example, you hear that construction will continue, that building in any part of Jerusalem is the right of any Jew, and it's the same as building in Tel Aviv.
In an interview with a daily here, Barkat said he didn't believe that in any final status negotiation Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be handed over. I'm quoting here. He said, I don't think it will be handed over. It will stay in our hands and I am developing there on a large scale. Now, he's the man in control of that, so the Israelis are actually acting on this philosophy. This is not a new position.
For any Israeli politician, Jerusalem is literally, as you mentioned, sacred ground. None would publicly posit giving it up, and that's also why the Israeli public by and large supports building in East Jerusalem. The politicians here have not told Israelis that they might have to make concessions on this some day.
MONTAGNE: Well, instead of bending then on building in Jerusalem, what are the Israelis offering the Americans?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not clear yet. Supposedly that will be the subject of the discussion today between the prime minister, Netanyahu, and President Obama. But what we're hearing is the Israelis are offering a possible prisoner release to bolster the position of Mahmoud Abbas. The offer also that indirect talks will deal with substantive issues, like Jerusalem, like final borders, instead of what the Israelis wanted, which was simply talks about how direct talks would ensue. And also possibly the easing of restrictions on Gaza, which have been in place for two years.
MONTAGNE: Thank you. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joining us from Jerusalem.