By JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Palestinian prime minister pulled out of a planned meeting with Israel's leader on Tuesday, torpedoing what was set to be the highest-level talks between the sides in nearly two years.
The meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attended by two lower level Palestinian officials, lasted less than an hour and ended with a brief joint statement pledging to seek peace. It signaled little progress was made.
Even before Salam Fayyad's pullout, both sides played down expectations for the meeting, which the Palestinians portrayed as a last-ditch effort to salvage peace talks before the U.S. presidential election season.
The statement said the Palestinians submitted a letter outlining their demands for resuming talks, and that Netanyahu had promised a response in two weeks.
"Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to reaching peace," the statement said. "The two sides hope that this exchange of letters will help find a way to advance peace."
The Palestinians were represented by Saeb Erekat, their chief negotiator, and a top security official, Majed Faraj. They gave no explanation for Fayyad's absence.
Fayyad told his colleagues that he was pulling out of the meeting because he had reservations about the letter's contents and was worried about public opposition to the meeting, said an official in his office. The official requested anonymity because the matter's sensitivity.
Erekat said after the meeting that Netanyahu had promised to "seriously consider" the Palestinian president's letter.
"We hope that the commitments on both sides will be honored," Erekat said. "The current status quo cannot be maintained."
Substantive negotiations collapsed more than three years ago, in large part over construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say there can be no negotiations as long as Israel continues to build homes in territories they claim for their future state. Israel says talks should resume without preconditions.
The letter says Israel must freeze all settlement construction and accept its pre-1967 war boundaries as the basis for the borders of a future Palestine, with mutually agreed upon modifications, according to drafts of the document obtained by The Associated Press. Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — the territories claimed by the Palestinians — in the 1967 Mideast war.
Palestinian officials have confirmed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas withdrew a threat in earlier drafts of the letter to resort to dissolve the Palestinian Authority.
The authority was formed in the 1990s as an interim step toward independence for the Palestinians.
Both sides would suffer if the Palestinian Authority were dissolved. Tens of thousands of Palestinian civil servants and security forces would lose their jobs, and Israel, as an occupying power, would be placed in charge of running the West Bank again.
At the urging of President Barack Obama, Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks in September 2010 at the White House. The talks collapsed several weeks later after a limited Israeli freeze on settlement construction expired.
Early this year, the sides held low-level talks under the mediation of neighboring Jordan. Those talks stalled in continued disagreement over the settlement issue.
Further complicating peace efforts, Gaza is now controlled by the militant Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel. Reconciliation efforts between Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas have repeatedly stalled.
In an interview with the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar accused Abbas of "providing the Israeli side nothing but concessions." He said the letter was a "trick" to fool the Palestinian people that "something is going on in the so-called peace process."
Tuesday's meeting came as the Palestinians marked their annual day of solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Some 3,500 prisoners refused meals on "Prisoners' Day," and 1,200 of them said they would continue with an open-ended hunger strike, according to Israeli prison service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.