Israel's new opposition chief meets with Abbas

AP , Sunday 1 Dec 2013

Israel's new opposition leader told the Palestinian president Sunday that most Israelis support a peace deal with the Palestinians and that his Labor Party will back any future agreement.

Isaac Herzog met with President Mahmoud Abbas just 10 days after being elected Labor leader, replacing a party chief who had made domestic issues such as economic inequality a chief concern.

Sunday's talks at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank signaled a shift back to Labor's traditional priorities. Two decades ago, the party led Israel into negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state.

The collapse of the first major attempt to reach a final peace deal in 2000 contributed to Labor's political decline. Since then, the party either served as a junior partner in coalition governments or in the opposition. It's currently in the opposition, with 15 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed in July, but there has been no sign of progress.

With only five more months set aside for talks, tensions are high over Israel's continued settlement building on war-won lands the Palestinians seek for their state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition announced plans for thousands more settlement apartments in recent months, drawing angry Palestinian complaints that Israel is showing bad faith and pre-empting the outcome of talks.

Despite the prevailing pessimism, Herzog said he believes both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are serious about negotiations. "I was very impressed by the willingness of the president (Abbas) to move toward an agreement ... and I will deliver this message to the prime minister (Netanyahu) who I know is also committed to the idea of moving toward an agreement," said Herzog.

Herzog said he believes a "clear majority" of Israelis support a peace deal and that Labor will provide a parliamentary safety net for Netanyahu if he reaches such an agreement.

Pro-settler legislators are influential in Netanyahu's coalition and in his own Likud Party and are expected to oppose any deal involving a withdrawal from much of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip — also captured in 1967 and sought for a Palestinian state — in 2005 but continues to restrict access to the territory.

In other developments Sunday, Gaza's ruling Hamas announced that it has canceled an annual rally marking its founding, saying it is inappropriate to celebrate at a time of growing economic hardship.

It was the first time the Islamic militant group has canceled the festivities since seizing Gaza in 2007. Hamas has used the elaborate annual commemoration of its December 1987 founding to demonstrate its control, with large military-style gatherings attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

The decision illustrated just how hard Gaza's economy has been hit since Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the main foreign patron of Hamas, was ousted in a July military coup. Morsi hails from the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood group, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

The Egyptian military has imposed tough border restrictions, including the destruction of smuggling tunnels that long sustained the Gaza economy and provided a key source of income for Hamas.

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