Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, August 1, 2010
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Photo by Reuters
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President Shimon Peres and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, issued a joint call on Sunday for Israel and the Palestinians to begin direct peace negotiations as soon as possible.

The two opened a meeting in Cairo by declaring their unified stance on the matter, warning that both Israel and the Palestinians must not miss out on the window of opportunity currently open for the process. Egyptian chief negotiator Omer Suleiman and its foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, also took part in the conference.

"Peres expressed to Mubarak that Israel, under Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, is serious in its intentions to open direct peace talks immediately, and to hold serious and comprehensive negotiations to allow for a peace agreement with the Palestinians on the principle of two states for two people," the President's Office said in a statement.

During the meeting, Mubarak briefed Peres on the details of last week's Arab League session in which the 22-member body gave a green light to beginning the process of direct talks.

Netanyahu: Direct peace talks could begin this month

Netanyahu told his cabinet during its weekly meeting on Sunday that the face-to-face-negotiations could begin by mid-August, though he accused the Palestinians of stalling the process.

"It appears that direct talks will begin in mid-August, but this has not been confirmed, and we will become clear in the next few day," Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has come under increasing international pressure to move from U.S.-mediated talks, which began in May after a 15-month break in official contact between the sides, to direct negotiations.

Abbas has so far resisted the move but last week the Arab League apparently undermined his position by formally backing direct talks.

Netanyahu told ministers that he had won support from Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah for the talks, and accused Abbas of stalling the process.

"I met with Mubarak and Abdullah and talked with them about direct talks," he said. "We took some very difficult steps, but the Palestinians have done nothing. In indirect negotiations, both sides spoke with the Americans, who did not pass information on to the other side."

During the cabinet meeting, Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom asked Netanyahu to clarify a report in Haaretz on Saturday, which quoted that Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said the Palestinians had submitted a far-reaching peace proposal to the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama.

According to Erekat, the offer was more generous than any previous Palestinian proposal.

Erekat said the PA's detailed offer would end the conflict with Israel and resolve all Palestinian claims - but that he had not yet received an answer from Israel.

As well as discussing the peace talks, Netanyahu also made reference to Friday's rocket attack on the city of Ashkelon, for which Israel retaliated by bombing targets in the Gaza Strip, killing a Hamas militant commander.

"Hamas is responsible for any attack that originates in the Gaza strip, and Israel reserves the right to defend its citizens," he said.

Israeli gestures

On Sunday, Erekat reponded to the prime minister's comments by saying that the starting date for talks depended on Netanyahu's willingness to suspend Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel Radio reported.

A temporary construction freeze - which does not include East Jerusalem - is due to expire in September.

According to the radio report, which cited Palestinian sources quoted by an Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, Israel is planning a series of gestures aimed at boosting Palestinian confidence ahead of the anticipated renewal of direct talks.

These were to include transfer to the PA control of several Palestinian towns, releasing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and giving Palestinian security  forces more authority to restrict the entry of Israeli forces into areas they control, the report said.