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No breakthroughs in restarting Mideast talks
JERUSALEM -- International mediators on Wednesday failed to make any breakthroughs in their quest to bring Israeli and Palestinian officials back to the negotiating table, but in a small sign of progress, they announced that both sides would present "comprehensive proposals" for resolving key aspects of their conflict within three months.
The "Quartet" of Mideast peace makers said Israel and the Palestinians agreed to submit proposals on "territory and security" in the coming months, as part of a larger goal by the international community to forge a full peace agreement by the end of next year. Territorial claims and security concerns are core issues in any final deal.
Peace talks have been stalled for the past three years over Palestinian demands that Israel freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- captured areas claimed by the Palestinians. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating as long as Israeli settlements gobble up the land on which the Palestinians hope to make a future independent state.
Representatives from the Quartet -- the U.S., EU, United Nations and Russia -- participated in Wednesday's talks, along with the Quartet's Mideast envoy, Tony Blair. The Palestinians turned down a request for face-to-face talks with the Israelis, so negotiations were held separately with each side.
Israeli and Palestinian officials voiced little optimism afterward.
In addition to their calls for a settlement freeze, the Palestinians want their future border with Israel to be based on lines that Israel held before capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.
"We explained to the Quartet that we are prepared to sit at the negotiating table as soon as the Israeli government freezes all settlement construction and accepts clear terms of reference, specifically the 1967 borders," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "Anything short of that will simply put us back on the failed track that we have been on for the last 20 years."
Israel rejects both conditions. It still occupies east Jerusalem and the West Bank. It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls land crossings, as well as Gaza's coastline and airspace as part of a policy to contain the territory's Hamas rulers. The Islamic militant Hamas, overran Gaza in 2007 after routing forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leaving the Palestinians split between rival governments.
Israel says it is prepared to sit down with Abbas at any time, but only without conditions. Palestinians are skeptical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to peacemaking because of hard-line positions he has taken, including his opposition to partitioning Jerusalem.
After Wednesday's meetings, Netanyahu's office issued a brief statement saying that discussions focused on ideas for renewing peace talks, and that more meetings would be held in the near future.
The Quartet's statement gave few details about how it would move forward, saying it would meet regularly with the parties over the coming three months "to review progress." Even if the Israelis and Palestinians present their proposals, the gaps will be immense and difficult to bridge.
The international community has been scrambling to salvage peace talks since the Palestinians asked the United Nations last month to recognize an independent state of Palestine, with or without a peace agreement. The request defied a U.S.-led effort to block the move, which is under review at the U.N. Security Council. The U.S., like Israel, says peace must be reached through negotiations, not a U.N. declaration.