Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak executed a sharp U-turn on 20 September, announcing the resumption of talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA) only hours after one of his senior advisers had said that meetings between senior negotiators had been cancelled.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was scheduled to meet Israeli attorney Gilad Sher on 19 September, but the talks were suspended after Barak’s chief-of-staff Danny Yatom called for ‘time out’ in a move that seemed designed to increase pressure on the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Tensions quickly escalated and the Palestinians, accusing Israel of trying to get out of the peace process, refused to resume talks without official clarification of Israel’s position. Israel rescheduled the talks, dismissing the episode as ‘an internal misunderstanding’. Barak, however, stressed that since the failure of July’s Camp David summit, meetings between the two sides could be characterised as contacts only, not negotiations.
The event highlights the growing frustration in the peace process, with each side accusing the other of foot-dragging as the time for finding a solution is running out.
The Israeli parliament is due to reconvene in five weeks and, without some form of a deal, Barak’s minority government may be forced to face the daunting prospect of an early election at a time when his popularity is ebbing to new lows.