BEIT JALLA, West Bank (AP) - The Palestinians are ready to extend current peace talks with Israel beyond an April deadline if a detailed framework agreement is in place by then, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Wednesday.
The comments by Saeb Erekat marked the first time Palestinian negotiators endorsed the U.S. idea of seeking a preliminary rather than a final deal by the end of a nine-month period of negotiations to which both sides agreed at the outset.
Erekat said it is possible to reach such a framework agreement by the end of April, despite wide gaps between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hardliner who holds tougher positions than his predecessors.
He suggested that much ground has already been covered in previous negotiations on a final peace deal, dating back to 2000. "Actually, it's about decisions," he told reporters in the town of Beit Jalla adjacent to biblical Bethlehem. "If Netanyahu decides it's going to happen, it's going to happen."
Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, but are ready for minor land swaps to enable Israel to keep some of the larger of dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Unlike his predecessor, Netanyahu has refused to accept the pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border talks and rejects a partition of Jerusalem into an Israeli and a Palestinian capital.
Under U.S.-pressure, Israel and the Palestinians resumed negotiations last summer, agreeing to talk for nine months with the goal of a permanent peace agreement. With little progress so far, the Americans are now setting their sights on a preliminary deal.
Erekat said that based on the July 29 start of negotiations, they are to end on April 29. "We are not talking about a peace treaty on the 29th of April. We are talking about a framework agreement," he said.
He described a framework deal as more detailed than a declaration of principles and said it would have to be turned into a full peace treaty in six to 12 months.
Asked by The Associated Press if the Palestinians would continue the talks, provided a framework deal is in place by April, Erekat said: "Absolutely, if we reach a framework agreement that specifies the borders, the percentage of swaps, the security arrangements, the Jerusalem status, refugees and then that is the skeleton."
Previously the Palestinians indicated that after April, they would resume a campaign of seeking wider recognition at the U.N. and other international bodies in the absence of a peace deal. Israel opposes such efforts, saying they are a way to sidestep negotiations.
Still, reaching a framework deal on all core issues is a longshot. Israel and the Palestinians have vast differences over future borders, the status of Palestinian refugees who seek to return to lost properties in what is now Israel and the conflicting claims to Jerusalem and its sensitive holy sites.