Even worse odds than in 2008 for Mideast deal

JERUSALEM (AP) — The same negotiators, the same issues, a familiar venue: The sense of deja vu is overwhelming as Israelis and Palestinians start Wednesday on their third attempt in 13 years to draw a border between them.

But they face even longer odds than in the last round, which ended in 2008.

Since then, at least 40,000 more Israelis have settled in areas the Palestinians want for a state, making it even harder to partition the land. The chaos of the Arab Spring has bolstered Israeli demands for ironclad security guarantees, such as troop deployments along Palestine’s future border, widening a dispute that seemed near resolution five years ago.

The talks come after months of prodding by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who made six visits to the region since taking office in his bid to bring together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite U.S. cheerleading, expectations have been low on both sides. Ahead of Wednesday’s talks at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the atmosphere soured further after Israel said in a series of announcements in the past week that it is advancing plans for more than 3,000 new homes for Jews in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

“It’s not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really the destruction of the outcome,” said senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi. “Israel has transformed the negotiations into a cover and a license to steal land.”

Israel argued it’s mainly building in areas it wants to keep in any border deal. “This construction that has been authorized in no way changes the final map of peace,” said government spokesman Mark Regev.

In Israel, attention focused on anguish over the expected release Tuesday of 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners, part of a U.S.-brokered deal that persuaded the Palestinians to resume negotiations. In all, 104 veteran prisoners are to be freed in four stages, depending on progress in the border talks, for which the U.S. has allotted nine months.

Most of the prisoners have already served more than 20 years, many for deadly attacks on Israelis. Angry relatives of some of the victims spoke on TV and radio news programs, protesting the release of convicted killers in what they considered a pointless gesture. Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected their appeal, clearing the way for the release.

The negotiators meeting Wednesday — Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho for Israel, and Abbas advisers Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh for the Palestinians — have spent countless hours with each other in previous talks and are familiar with the issues down to the tiniest detail.

That’s not a recipe for success, though.

The sides made progress in previous rounds, starting in 2000, and the outlines of a deal have emerged — a Palestinian state in the vast majority of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, with border adjustments to enable Israel to annex land where most of the more than 500,000 settlers live.

However, talks broke down each time before the two sides reached the truly explosive issues: dividing Jerusalem and finding new homes for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Even on the land swaps, gaps remained. Abbas offered Israel 1.9 percent of the West Bank, while Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert proposed keeping 6.5 percent.

Since Abbas and Olmert last met in 2008, the situation has become even more complex. Netanyahu has rejected Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as a starting point for border talks and says east Jerusalem is not up for discussion.

There are also more settlers: The number of Israelis living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem has increased from 489,000 five years ago to around 530,000 in 2011, according to government figures. Settler officials recently put the current total at 568,000.

The Netanyahu government says it is largely building in east Jerusalem and West Bank “settlement blocs” it intends to keep — although is doubtful the Palestinians would sign off on such a map. And the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now says that under Netanyahu, more than one-third of settlement housing starts were deep inside the West Bank.

In a swap deal that falls somewhere between Abbas’ and Olmert’s proposals, well over 100,000 Israeli settlers would have to leave their homes.

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