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Palestinian Officials Denounce Impending Direct Talks With Israel

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

JERUSALEM -- On the eve of the first face-to-face talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials in more than a year, officials on both sides seemed to be positioning themselves for the meetings to disappoint, with Palestinian officials in particular denouncing the talks as a waste of time.

"I don't think people should have any expectations or hold their breath in any anticipation," Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and frequent critic of her group's policies, told The Huffington Post Monday.

Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, and Yitzhak Molho, the chief negotiator on the Israeli side, are set to meet Tuesday in Amman, in talks that were quietly arranged by officials in Jordan, along with the Quartet of sponsoring nations -- the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the U.S.

But both Erekat and Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, made it clear over the weekend that the talks would begin with both sides deeply divided, even over the very premise of their meeting.

While Palestinians have said they will not engage in formal peace talks until Israel suspends settlement activity, the Israelis insist that they would only negotiate without such preconditions.

"The Quartet put out a statement calling on the parties to return to the direct talks without preconditions," Regev told HuffPost on Monday, adding that while Israel had embraced that call, if talks stumbled Israel would consider it the fault of the Palestinians.

"We hope that the Palestinian side is now rethinking their previous position."

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, contend that until Israel halts settlement activities in the West Bank, talks between the nations can be little more than superficial chatter.

"Coming to the table now doesn't mean anything except that Israel will use it to avoid any accountability, and the U.S. will use it to say that they're engaged in negotiations without having to do anything," Ashrawi said.

"What is needed is not just negotiation for the sake of negotiation, or even lip service or even a photo op," Ashrawi added. "This is ridiculous. ... It is just the semblance of a so-called peace process with no reality."

On Monday evening, top officials with Hamas, the other leading Palestinian organization, joined the chorus of naysayers, calling on the Palestinian Authority to boycott the talks.

"These meetings are a repetition of a track that had failed over the past years," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in an emailed statement, according to Ha'aretz, an English language Israeli paper.

The talks in Amman come just a few weeks before a three-month deadline to return to the negotiating table laid out by the Quartet during hasty discussions at the U.N.'s general assembly in September, part of an attempt to forestall a Palestinian statehood bid.

On Sunday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the news that Palestinian and Israeli officials would meet face-to-face.

"We are hopeful that this direct exchange can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet," Clinton said in a statement. "The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace."

Defenders of the talks argue that much of the posturing over the past few days may be only a smokescreen, a "face-saving way back" to the table, in the words of Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and consultant to the Quartet process.

"Let them call it whatever they like," Danin tweeted Sunday in response to cynical comments about the prospects of Tuesday's talks. He added: "Intentions less important than interests. Still, only one way to test it."

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