Arab League meeting in Cairo
Arab foreign ministers and delegations attending a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on July 29, 2010. Photo by AP
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Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaking with Qatari PM Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on July 29, 2010 Photo by Reuters

The United States said Thursday it was "encouraged" by signs of Arab support for direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, after the Arab League declared earlier that it would support the Palestinians if they decided to enter into such face-to-face talks.

"We're encouraged by what we've heard today coming out of Cairo," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, adding that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is hopeful the negotiations resume soon.

Crowley said Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, acting on behalf of an Arab peace initiative, had sent a letter to Obama outlining ideas about how to move the process forward.

Qatar heads the Arab League committee on the peace process.

"We will, of course, be evaluating the ideas contained in that letter, and we'll be consulting further," Crowley said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday also welcomed the Arab League announcement. The prime minister declared that he would be willing to enter into "direct and honest peace talks" within days, adding that "by way of direct negotiations, a speedy peace agreement can be achieved."

Barak, currently in Washington for a series of meetings with top administration officials, said that "only direct negotiations can bring a peace agreement and a solution of two states for two peoples."

"Negotiations will require difficult and brave decisions from both sides," Barak added. "I hope that the Palestinians understand that." 

Earlier Thursday, the Qatari prime minister announced the Arab League's decision, saying that the Arab League would support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if he decided to enter direct talks with Israel. 

Asked whether the league would back direct talks, Jassim said: "Of course, there is agreement, but agreement over the principles of what will be discussed and the manner of the direct negotiations."

It would be up to Abbas to decide whether to hold talks, based on whatever conditions he sees fit, Jassim said.

Jassim added that he was "full of doubts" about Israel's seriousness regarding final status negotiations.

Abbas was in Cairo Thursday, attending the Arab League meeting aimed at deciding whether to add the organization's weight to U.S. and Israeli pressure for face-to-face talks.

Abbas is under strong U.S. and European pressure to restart direct talks that were frozen in 2008. The U.S. has for the last few months been mediating indirect negotiations between the two sides, but the Palestinian leader said he would only move toward direct talks if Israel agrees to a complete halt in settlement construction and accepts a Palestinian state in territories seized in the 1967 Six Day War - the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

"When I receive written assurances [about] accepting the 1967 border and halting the settlement [building], I will go immediately to the direct talks," Abbas was quoted as saying in remarks reported by Egypt's state-owned news agency Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Islamist Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip, rivals of Abbas' Fatah movement, rejected the Arab League's conditions on which its support for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks depends, calling them a "cover."

"We reject any cover for the resumption of the direct talks with the Zionist occupation," Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza said. "This committee is not authorized to make concessions over the rights of our people."

In a letter addressed to the United States administration, the Arab League said Thursday it needed a clear timeframe, specific reference terms and a monitoring mechanism in order to support direct talks.

Radwan said that "the Arab cover would lead to more confiscation of lands, more demolition of houses in Jerusalem and the West Bank and more expansion of settlement."

The Arab League committee should immediately withdraw this cover and reject any call for the resumption of direct or indirect talks," he continued.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa said earlier that "I assure you I am not of the intention to enter into negotiations, without a time frame, without clear references and without monitoring."