Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to Jordan twice this week—once to talk with King Abdullah and then return home to update Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and a second time for secret talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
No details of their conversation were revealed, according to Voice of Israel government radio, which first reported the “direct talks” that were held at an undisclosed private home on Sunday, five days before Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Abbas in Washington. Labor Minister Yitzchak Herzog also met with King Abdullah in Jordan on Monday in a previously unreported visit.
Defense Minister Barak previously has said he routinely meets with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but this week’s meeting in Jordan is the first report in months of top-level direct discussions with Abbas. He has been insisting that Israel extend the 10-month building freeze of new homes for Jews in Judea and Samaria before face-to-face talks between the two sides.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pressured Abbas to give up his pre-condition, but the issue apparently will be top on the agenda in Washington.
The U.S. State Department continues to express optimism about the talks, telling reporters Monday that it does not expect “peace in one meeting” but that the direct talks scheduled for Thursday can serve as the "launch of a vigorous process" with the aim of reaching a final agreement on a new PA country within a year.
In what has become a diplomatic chess game with only a few pieces left on the board, Israel and the PA are in the same position of not wanting to be blamed for spoiling President Obama’s attempt to win political points.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to offer more “goodwill" gestures to the PA in return for Israel’s not extending the building freeze, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. It reported Tuesday that the prime minister will offer to remove more security checkpoints in Judea and Samaria, free more PA prisoners and jailed terrorists and offer the PA control over a key route linking Ramallah with a new Arab city under construction. A nearby Jewish town would in effect fall under PA control if Israel relinquishes its sovereignty over the road.
Israel may propose a compromise to continue the building freeze only in areas outside of the large population centers of Jewish communities in Gush Etzion and in Betar Illit, Ariel and Maaleh Adumim. Abbas has built up expectations among his followers that he will accept only a full freeze that also includes parts of Jerusalem where the PA claims sovereignty.
Abbas warned in Ramallah Sunday, "Israel's government would alone bear the responsibility of threatening the negotiations with failure and collapse if all forms of settlement expansions continue.”