JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH, April 29 (Xinhua) -- Chances for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians seemed slimmer than ever as the deadline for the U.S.-brokered peace talks came on Tuesday.
Israel and the Palestinian National Authority resumed peace talks in July 2013 following persistent attempts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the process, after a three-year halt in official diplomatic contacts.
Amid efforts to extend the negotiations beyond the April 29 deadline, Israel suspended the talks last week after the Palestinian Fatah faction signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Israel sees Hamas as a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's annihilation.
The talks, involving Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat along with U.S. Mideast Envoy Martin Indyk and closely monitored by Kerry, have been rocky from the very beginning.
Sticky points such as Israel's stern security demands, its refusal to halt construction of housing units in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem settlements made it difficult to achieve any real progress in the nine-month talks, which were held behind closed doors, according to sources and various media reports.
Israel's refusal to release the final batch of long-held Palestinian prisoners as was agreed earlier also hampered progress in the talks.
Israel was committed to freeing 104 Palestinian prisoners who were involved in militant attacks against Israel and were locked up before 1993, the year when the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestinians. It only set free 78 Palestinian prisoners but refused to release the remaining 26, due to pressure from hawkish right-wing members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
A crisis emerged as the deadline for the prisoner release expired on March 29, but Kerry's surprise visit to the region in the following week appeared to have succeeded in salvaging the talks, introducing a framework agreement that would extend the talks until 2015 and specify the topics to be discussed throughout the continuing negotiations, including the question of the borders of the future Palestinian state and possible land swaps with Israel, the status of Jerusalem, the issue of the Palestinian refugees that left their homes amid the 1948 War and security arrangements.
Kerry seemed to be working out a deal in which the United States would set free Jonathan Pollard, a U.S.-Israeli convicted spy who has been incarcerated for thirty years. In return, Israel agreed to release the Palestinian prisoners as well as conduct a partial halt in settlement construction.
However, once Kerry left the region, controversial steps taken by both sides threw the process back into deepened crisis -- Israel published tenders for hundreds of housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and the Palestinians announced that they would seek to join 15 international conventions.
The Palestinian move worries Israel as the Palestinians' membership in the United Nations and other international bodies may be grounds for them to file complaints against Israel over its occupation of the West Bank.
Israel enacted sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, ordering a halt to cooperation on civilian matters with the Palestinians and freezing the legalization of 19 formerly illegal Palestinian outposts in the West Bank.
Efforts by Livni and Erekat in the last two weeks to reach a compromise that would overcome the crisis and put the peace talks back on track, which made some progress according to Israeli officials, were disrupted on Thursday by Netanyahu's announcement that it would suspend the talks with the Palestinians due to the unity agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas.
Netanyahu said Abbas chose Hamas over peace and that Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, whereas Livni used a more dovish tone and said that the door was " not yet closed" on the peace talks and that the government is currently "re-evaluating" them.
Abbas, on his part, said that Fatah would continue to lead the peace talks, which would involve Hamas, and that Hamas will recognize Israel, denounce terror and recognize past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Nabil Amro, a former Palestinian diplomat and a political analyst, told Xinhua that the Israeli and Palestinian sides may have no other alternative except for keeping in contact with each other and keeping on negotiating "under a different title."
George Jaqman, director of the Democratic Studies Institution in Ramallah, told Xinhua that the current situation of Israeli occupation is so volatile and is not expected to last in the long run.
He called on the two sides and the United States to be more serious in rescuing the peace process, warning that any more unilateral actions by either side could lead to violence on the ground. (Anat Shalev in Jerusalem and Saud Abu Ramadan in Ramallah contributed to this story)
Backgrounder: Chronology of nine months of renewed Israeli- Palestinian negotiations
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