Peace Talks Resume Under Media Blackout

YERUSHALAYIM -

Report: Israel to return bodies of terrorists

Under cover of a virtual media blackout, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians resumed on Wednesday in Yerushalayim after a bitter, five-year impasse marked by deep mistrust, tense diplomatic maneuverings, violence and threats of violence.

The exact time and location of the first round of negotiations were not made public, nor was any agenda made available to the media.

“The talks resumed,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s office said in a statement at about 7 p.m.  “No photo opp. No statements. Why? To allow the teams to work together, and not think about the media waiting outside.”

The American brokers were walking a fine line on Wednesday, reiterating their condemnation of Israel’s expanding construction plans over the Green Line
while insisting that the issue was not so serious as to derail the scheduled talks.

“The United States of America views all of the [building] as illegitimate,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, as he reported that he had discussed the matter with both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, saying the exchanges were “frank and open.”

Kerry also checked with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he described as “committed to continue to come to this negotiation.” Palestinian leaders had threatened to walk out on the proceedings if Israel pressed on with its building program in Yehuda and Shomron and east ern Yerushalayim.

Kerry called them by phone from South America, where he was making his first visit as secretary of state.

However, despite the high-profile protestations from the Palestinians over the  announcements of new housing over the Green Line, Kerry indicated in a press conference on Tuesday  that neither the U.S. nor Abbas were taken by surprise.

Kerry said Netanyahu was “completely upfront with me and with President Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building that would take place in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement.”

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the Department had “no reaction to the specific announcement” on housing in eastern Yerushalayim, but that it was one of the many “sticky issues” that need to be resolved.

“In no way are we throwing up our hands on [building],” she said, acknowledging that there are “incredibly serious consequences” for such actions.

Nevertheless, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) was unapologetic on Wednesday, telling Army Radio, “This is just the first step, and a small one at that.”

“We don’t need to give excuses for building in the land of Israel. The fact that there are negotiations is an issue in itself — and something about which I have my own opinions as well — but the attempt to connect the two issues is a mistake,” Ariel said.

The veil of secrecy seemed to lift somewhat on Wednesday afternoon, as Ynet carried a story about another goodwill gesture to follow the prisoners release —return to the Palestinians of the bodies of terrorists who were buried in Israel.

However, as the talks were reportedly underway in the evening, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a denial — if less than categorical — saying it was “not correct,” and that “at this time there is no intention to return bodies.”

Ynet quoted Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA minister for civil affairs, who said the coming transfer will likely consist of dozens of bodies.

If so, it would not be the first time. Last year, Israel transferred to the Palestinians 91 bodies of terrorists that were buried in a cemetery for enemy fatalities near the Jordanian border.

Israelis looked on as the midnight handover of the first group of Palestinian prisoners, all with “blood on their hands,” was made to the Palestinian Authority ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.

Israeli officials had said that they would be watching the reception for the prisoners, and sought to discourage the Palestinians from giving them too much of heroes’ welcome.

But the V-for-Victory signs, which had been intentionally thwarted by the sealed, tinted windows of the buses the prisoners were transported in, were waving in the air once they reached Ramallah.

Joyous crowds and fireworks and music greeted them in the square in front of the Mukata in Ramallah.

As an Israeli resident of Yerushalayim, Erez Goldman, observed, “I think that today is a sad day to start negotiating about peace with people who accepted murderers as heroes. I cannot see any way these peace negotiations are going anywhere,” he said.

Still, it was described by journalists as a muted reception compared to festivities that marked the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in October 2011. There were no Hamas flags on display Tuesday night in Ramallah, either, unlike in 2011.

Abbas made a short speech — omitting any mention of the peace talks — and it was all over in about an hour.

The Israeli team to Wednesday’s talks was represented by Livni and Netanyahu’s personal envoy, Yitzchak Molcho, with the Palestinians represented by chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and senior negotiator Muhammad Shtayyeh.

U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk met Abbas on Sunday, and is scheduled to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday. Indyk is accompanied by Frank Lowenstein, a former top aide to Kerry who worked with him in the Senate and also on his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

While the diplomats talked of peace, overnight the Israeli air force bombed rocket silos in Gaza in retaliation for a rocket attack on Israel. There were no casualties.

And on Wednesday night, the IDF shot and lightly wounded a Palestinian who was throwing rocks at vehicles near Ofra in the Binyamin region. Two other Palestinians who were involved escaped.

The wounded man was treated at the scene and then taken to an Israeli hospital.