RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are progressing painfully slowly, with few details emerging, and the atmosphere around the negotiations is one of rising tension and frustration.
The Palestinians have threatened to pull out of the talks several times over Israel’s continued settlement building in the West Bank and the killing of six Palestinians by Israeli security forces, while right-leaning members of the Israeli Parliament have called for canceling the talks over the recent killing of three Israelis by Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas face enormous pressure from some members of their respective governments, and significant portions of their public, to withdraw from the negotiations.
Virtually the only detail about the talks that’s emerged recently came from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday in Rome, where he held a marathon seven hours of talks with Netanyahu.
The two men said nothing about the peace talks after their meeting, which was largely devoted to Iran. But before meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry said there’d been intense meetings between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators over the past several weeks and that the two sides had met three times within five days.
Israelis and Palestinians, however, voice little but pessimism.
After the killing of two Israeli soldiers and a settler by Palestinians in the West Bank, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, from the Jewish Home party, called on Netanyahu to halt a planned release of Palestinian prisoners that Israel had committed to before the peace talks resumed. The release is scheduled for next week.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, of Netanyahu’s Likud bloc, has said the Palestinians were unworthy peace partners. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, also from Likud, said Palestinians would interpret a peace agreement as a sign of weakness.
Enthusiasm for the talks is no better on the other side.
Hanna Amireh, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, warned last week that pulling out of peace negotiations was one of the scenarios discussed during a recent meeting of the committee.
Israel, he charged, was benefiting from the prolonged negotiations by expanding settlements in Palestinian areas and dictating the outcome of the talks.
There also have been repeated bloody clashes between Palestinians and right-wing Israeli settlers at the Temple Mount, or Al Aqsa Mosque, in East Jerusalem. The mosque is Islam’s third holiest shrine, abutting the Western Wall, probably Judaism’s holiest site. The clashes recently prompted Amos Harel, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, to call the Temple Mount “the primary danger” of sparking wider violence.
“The increasing frequency of visits by rabbis and Jewish worshippers to the site, as well as the activities of various groups, fuel concern among the Palestinians” that right-wing Jewish groups are trying to upset the status quo, under which the Temple Mount is administered by Muslims, he wrote.
Elsewhere, Israeli settlers have increased their “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and their property. Fourteen Israeli yeshiva students, aged 13-14, were arrested recently in Jerusalem on suspicion of vandalizing Palestinian property. Clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths have claimed the lives of six Palestinians during the last two months.
At the same time, Palestinians increasingly target Israeli settlers in the West Bank in shooting and stone-throwing attacks, and the domestic Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet regularly reports attempts or plans by Palestinian groups to kidnap and attack Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Both sides appear unwilling to back down. Abbas urged the Europeans on Wednesday not to deal with businesses in the settlements. But Netanyahu recently sent a message of support to settlers in Hebron, considered some of the most extreme of the settler movements.
The situation recently drew alarm from Yuval Diskin, the former head of Shin Bet.
“All of the conditions exist in our situation for the Palestinian masses to rise up. In the West Bank, the intense tension and frustration is worsening among the Palestinians, who feel that their land is being stolen from them, that the state they strive for is getting further away and the economy is no longer something that they can take comfort in,” he said.