US President George W. Bush's Mideast peace monitor sat down with Israeli and
Palestinian representatives for the first time Friday since talks formally resumed nearly four months ago, but the atmosphere was clouded by what some Palestinians viewed as an Israeli slight.
The Palestinians sent their prime minister, Salam Fayyad, while the Israelis dispatched a lower-level representative, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, a decision the Palestinians said showed a lack of seriousness.
Representatives of the sides met Friday morning at Jerusalem's King David Hotel. Sitting opposite Fayyad was Gilad, not his boss, former Israeli prime minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak.
The Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, criticized that decision. The defense minister should have been there as a gesture of respect, Erekat said.
"It would have been very appropriate for Barak to go. Maybe Barak couldn't go because he is busy planning more (settlement construction) and more incursions," Erekat said.
The Defense Ministry released no official statement after the meeting. The US Consulate in Jerusalem said the sides had discussed "where the parties are not meeting their commitments and the reasons why," and said the meeting included "a cordial but frank exchange of views."
Before the meeting began, Gilad described it only in general terms, telling Israel Radio that it was "part of the general dialogue between us and the Palestinians and us and the Americans" and part of an effort to "make progress in the peace process."
The US envoy, Lt.-Gen. William Fraser III, must confront an upsurge in violence between the sides and the fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have fulfilled their obligations under the peace plan promoted by Bush.
Those talks have made little apparent progress so far and critics have charged that it's taken a long time for Fraser to assume his role as the key arbiter of Palestinian and Israeli compliance with their obligations under the international peace plan known as the Road Map.