Israelis leave to meet Palestinians in Cairo
JERUSALEM (AP) _ After threatening to stay home to protest a reported agreement to freeze settlement construction, Israel officials left for Cairo on Sunday to meet Palestinians and try to resume Mideast peace talks.
The Israel-Palestinian peace talks broke off in mid-March when Israel began breaking ground for the 6,500-unit Har Homa housing project in a sector of Jerusalem the Palestinians want as a future capital.
In a sign of the strained communications between the two sides, Sunday’s meeting was almost canceled after one Palestinian official was quoted on Israeli radio stations as saying that Israel had agreed to a ``pause″ in settlement building.
Israel’s prime minister’s office said the Israeli delegation would not leave until the Palestinians denied that report.
The officials left, about an hour later than originally planned, after Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Nabil Abourdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the Israelis had made no promises.
``I wish they did. They did not,″ Erekat told The Associated Press in Cairo.
Abourdeneh said the Palestinians had received ``no serious offer from the Israeli side. ... Nothing new at all.″
Erekat said the gap between the two sides remained ``very wide,″ mainly because of Israel’s settlement activities.
``I don’t think we should raise our expectations,″ he said of Sunday’s meeting. ``Our position is still the same. We want a total cessation of settlement activities.″
Egypt’s Middle East News Agency said American and Egyptian observers were expected to attend the meeting. An American diplomatic effort to restart the peace talks failed last month.
On Saturday, Israeli radio and television reports, quoting unidentified sources, said Israel had agreed to a temporary halt in the construction of Har Homa and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Shortly afterward, the Cairo meeting between Israeli Cabinet Secretary Dan Naveh and Erekat was announced.
Arafat met Friday with top Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho in Ramallah, and Saturday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. Egypt has been trying to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table and has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a six-month freeze in settlement construction.
Yizhak Levy, an Israeli legislator from the National Religious Party, one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, said stopping construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank would bring down the government.
``Our information is that the prime minister does not intend to retreat,″ he said.