President Shimon Peres told visiting U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Friday that Jerusalem was committed to reaching a Middle East settlement that would see the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state beside Israel, but that security must be a central focus of these talks.
Mitchell arrived in the region earlier this week for the launch of the first peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, albeit indirect ones, in more than 18 months.
During their meeting, Peres told Mitchell that Israel placed security at the top of the agenda for the upcoming talks. Considering the increase in rocket fire following Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, said Peres, this was of utmost importance.
Following that meeting, Mitchell went on to hold talks with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and was scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the nearby central West Bank city of Ramallah.
Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said Thursday the U.S. mediator would "not get any answers from the Palestinian leadership" when he meets with Abbas on Friday, the Palestinian Ma'an news agency reported.
The spokesman said Mitchell would have to wait until the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee met on Saturday for an answer as to the conditions under which Palestinian negotiators would agree to participate in the indirect talks.
Abu Rudeineh said Mitchell would sit with Abbas Saturday night or Sunday morning, prior to the envoy's departure, to hear his official stance on the talks.
During the Saturday PLO Executive Committee meeting, Abbas is expected to show officials a letter Abu Rudeineh said he received from US President Barack Obama, pledging his commitment to a Palestinian state.
Controversy remains around the alleged securing of an Israeli promise to halt settlement construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem for the duration of the talks, supposed to last some four months.
The U.S. wants to upgrade the long-delayed indirect talks to direct negotiations as soon as possible, but the distrust between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is deep.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended in late 2008 as Israel headed for elections that saw Netanyahu's Likud return to power. They have not been resumed, despite the efforts of the Obama administration.
Abbas has made a total Israeli construction freeze a precondition for sitting down with the Netanyahu government.
Although Netanyahu agreed to a limited, partial 10-month building freeze in the West Bank, he has publicly refused to cease construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel sees as part of its united capital, but which Palestinians want as the capital of their
According to unconfirmed Israeli media reports however, a de-facto construction freeze is currently in place in East Jerusalem.
Mitchell has spent much of the past year shuttling the short distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to get the sides talking again.
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