Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaking in Bulgaria
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaking during a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria on July 13, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may agree to direct Middle East peace talks with Israel as early as next week, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton said in a letter exposed by Reuters on Thursday.

Ashton said in a letter the statement would be issued early next week, if both parties agreed to proceed to direct talks, and negotiations would be launched in August.

Abbas indicated on Monday he could go to direct talks, provided they were based on a March 19 statement by the Quartet.

Ashton's letter said "Abbas is very close" to accepting direct talks. "In principle, President Abbas should be in a position to give a definitive answer by Sunday or early next week," it added.

In the letter, Ashton said the Quartet initiative "should help President Abbas rally enough support, both at home and abroad, to engage in direct talks."

The Quartet says Israel should halt settlement building in the West Bank and reach a full peace agreement with the Palestinians within 24 months, creating a state on the basis of the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

Ashton's letter made clear that these terms, contained in the Quartet's statement from Moscow on March 19, would form the basis of its statement "to be issued concurrently with the announcement of the launch of direct talks."

A Palestinian source close to negotiations said an agenda for the talks which speaks of a Palestinian state "on the basis of pre-1967 borders" could not be seen as an attempt to fix borders before negotiation.

"This language is what has been accepted in all the agreements over the past 18 years by Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu in his first term," he said.
Both sides have discussed a possible land swap to adjust borders under any deal, as Israel has sought to maintain control over several major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev had no direct comment on recent reports, which said U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell's mission to get both sides talking directly had failed over the Quartet proposal.

"The government of Israel has been calling for the immediate start of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for more than a year now," Regev told Reuters.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Mitchell had held "good, productive meetings" in the region.

"We have confidence that we're moving in the right direction and ultimately will be successful," Toner said. "Is it difficult, yes. Are there issues? Sure. But we're going to keep moving forward and we are moving forward."

A Western diplomat said Quartet officials were working on the language of a statement "inviting the parties to go back to direct negotiations" on the lines of the Quartet's position.

Abbas refuses to engage in direct talks unless Netanyahu agrees to a clear agenda. Without one, say the Palestinians, Netanyahu may propose terms for a peace treaty that are completely unacceptable, and leave Abbas looking like a rejectionist when he turns them down.

U.S. President Barack Obama wants the peace process to return to the level it broke off at nearly two years ago, when Israel went to war in the winter of 2008-09 to stop rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants.

The window of opportunity is narrowing. A partial 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, ordered by Netanyahu last November, is due to end on September 26, posing a potentially fatal threat to any dialogue.