Following heavy international pressure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to the U.S. proposal to hold talks with Israel - in the format of indirect negotiations conducted by U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell.

Senior Palestinian sources confirmed Sunday that Abbas has agreed in principle to the U.S. proposal for indirect talks. According to the same sources, Abbas intends to ask for a number of clarifications with the U.S. administration and will consult with Arab leaders prior to giving Washington his final response.

Abbas is inclined to respond positively to the American proposal, as a refusal would shed negative light on the Palestinian position.

Senior Israeli officials noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the talks will begin in late February and will result in the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The proposal relayed to Israel and the Palestinians during Mitchell's last visit to the region, about two weeks ago, involved the indirect negotiations beginning with American mediation. The format will be similar to the indirect talks Israel held with Syria in Turkey, with Mitchell relaying messages to the negotiating teams sitting in separate rooms.

Major step backward

The start of the indirect negotiations will mark the first time the Palestinians will hold political exchanges with Israel since Netanyahu became prime minister a year ago. However, it is a major step backward in terms of the contacts between Israel and the Palestinians, as it marks the first time in 16 years that talks held between the two will not be direct.

The talks will initially be held at low levels, in an effort to map out the two sides' positions and establish an agenda of topics to be discussed if the talks are upgraded into full-fledged political negotiations.

It remains unclear how exactly the indirect talks will be held and whether they will take place in Jerusalem or Washington. Heading the Palestinian team will be Saeb Erekat, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiations team. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Molcho will likely lead the team, along with Brigadier General Mike Herzog, adviser to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and possibly National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.

Abbas returned last week from a trip to Europe, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The two European leaders, who had coordinated their stance with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, relayed a clear message to Abbas: that they expected him to resume negotiations with Israel as soon as possible.

During a meeting with visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in Ramallah last week, Abbas said he would soon announce his agreement to the U.S. proposal to resume political talks with Israel, but added that these will only be indirect talks.

Senior sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau noted that Netanyahu had received similar messages from Europe and Washington, even if no official Palestinian response was forthcoming.

The prime minister stressed to the U.S. administration that the indirect talks be limited in terms of length of time, not exceeding two to three weeks.

"I want to reach direct talks with the Palestinians," Netanyahu said during his meeting with Moratinos last week. "I have no problem with proximity talks or indirect negotiations. I look at this as a ladder that will enable the Palestinians to climb down from the tree, and as a corridor that will lead to high-level talks."