U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Ramallah, May 8, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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The U.S. State Department announced on Sunday that the first round of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been completed, saying that both Israel and the Palestinians had taken steps to create an atmosphere conducive to successful talks.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement that U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has left the Middle East after concluding talks characterized as "serious and wide-ranging."

Crowley said Israel had pledged not to build in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of East Jerusalem for two years and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed that he would work against incitement of any sort.

Mitchell told the parties that progress is important so they can move to direct negotiations resulting in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The State Department statement also said that both Israel and the Palestinians would be held "accountable" for actions that "undermine trust" during the course of the proximity talks.

Mitchell will return to the region next week to continue the talks.

Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the American announcement later Sunday, confirming that the housing project intended for the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood would not be built in the coming two years. The sources added that even when the Ramat Shlomo crisis first erupted, when the housing project was announced just as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Israel told the U.S. administration that the project was only in very initial stages and construction would not begin for at least two years.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu even announced this publicly after Biden's visit," the sources said. "Furthermore, the prime minister emphasized from the beginning that the planning and construction in Jerusalem will continue as always, just as it was during every one of Israel's last 43 administrations, and there has never been any Israeli pledge on this matter."

The sources also said that the Israel promised the U.S. administration to discuss all the core issues during the course of the proximity talks, and to take confidence building steps as gestures toward the Palestinians. On the other hand, sources said, the U.S. has promised Israel that the core issues, especially the most sensitive ones like the fate of Jerusalem, would be resolved only after proximity talks progress to direct talks.

Earlier on Sunday, the PA responded to U.S. and Israeli calls for eventual direct peace negotiations by reiterating that it would engage only in proximity talks until Israel halted all settlement construction.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat clarified the PA's stance as he officially announced the start of indirect peace negotiations mediated by Mitchell. The Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee approved the four-month process on Saturday.

"I can officially declare today that the proximity talks have begun," Erekat said, after a meeting between Mitchell and Abbas.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel expected the upcoming indirect negotiations to lead to direct talks, declaring: "It is impossible to make peace at a distance."

But Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio in response: "If he [Netanyahu] announces a complete halt to settlement building, there will be direct talks."

 In his remarks to the cabinet on talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said no-one should expect that "we will arrive at decisions and agreements on matters that are critical ... without sitting together in the same room."

Senior U.S. officials have told their Palestinian counterparts that Washington also believes direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians must begin as soon as possible.

The Obama administration has informed Abbas that it will not unveil mediation proposals or a Middle East peace plan before the start of direct, substantive talks between the two sides on final-status issues, a high-level Israeli official said.

On Saturday, the PLO Executive Committee announced that it had given the green light to Abbas to begin indirect negotiations with Israel. Abbas also met with Mitchell to discuss the manner in which the so-called proximity talks would be conducted.

The United States welcomed the PLO's decision as an important step in the peace process. "It is an important and welcome step," Crowley said.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday after a meeting in Ramallah between Abbas and Mitchell that the discussions would be held over the four months allotted to address final-status issues such as borders and security arrangements. "The issues of Jerusalem and the settlements are part of the 1967 borders, so they will be discussed and negotiated," Erekat said.

Erekat said that during their meeting, Abbas gave Mitchell a letter outlining the Palestinian Authority's position on proximity talks and the issues it wants to discuss. Abbas would head the Palestinian negotiating team himself, Erekat said, adding that the Palestinians view the talks as aimed at "The end of the occupation and creation of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel along the 1967 borders."

The talks appear to represent a U.S.-brokered compromise that meets both the Palestinian demand to address the issue of borders, and Israel's condition to discuss security arrangements. Both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators recognize that the two issues are intimately linked, and that any proposal or statement on either matter is likely to significantly influence any resolution on the other.

Israel welcomes PLO decision.

Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the decision to resume peace talks, urging that they be held unconditionally and lead swiftly to direct negotiations between the two sides.

A statement from Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz said the prime minister "welcomes the resumption of peace talks."

Quoting Netanyahu, Hefetz added that "Israel's position was and remains that the talks ought to be conducted without preconditions and should quickly lead to direct negotiations."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the U.S. administration expects Israel to do its part in facilitating U.S. efforts to advance the stalled peace process. "An essential condition for improving relations with the U.S. is taking steps that prove Israel is seriously committed to making decisions on the Palestinian issue once they reach the negotiating table," Barak said at a conference at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

"That will be judged by deeds, not by how much we smile at the White House. A comprehensive peace plan is needed, one that Israel stands behind. I'm not sure that that is possible with the current government," Barak said.

"Without an agreement, we will be subject to international isolation, and we will suffer a fate similar to that of Belfast or Bosnia, or a gradual transition from a paradigm of two states for two peoples to one of one state for two peoples, and some people will try to label us as similar to South Africa. That's why we must act," Barak said. If both sides are willing to make brave decisions, he said, "it will be possible to get to direct negotiations and a breakthrough toward an agreement."

In talks last week with Netanyahu and Barak, Mitchell asked that Israel make confidence-building measures over the next few weeks, both to build up PA institutions and encourage the Palestinians to shift more quickly to direct talks.

A senior official in Jerusalem said Israel would take such steps in the coming weeks, probably including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the removal of additional checkpoints and the transfer of certain West Bank areas to PA security control.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and veteran peace negotiator, said the Palestinians had received assurances from the U.S. concerning "settlement activities and the necessity to halt them." He said the Obama administration had also promised to be tough in the event of "any provocations," and guaranteed that all core issues would be put on the table.

The PLO decision came despite warnings from the rival Palestinian group Hamas, which said Friday that the move would only legitimize Israel's occupation, Palestinian media reported.

"Absurd proximity talks" would only "give the Israeli occupation an umbrella to commit more crimes against the Palestinians," Hamas reportedly said. "Hamas calls on the PLO to stop selling illusions to the Palestinian people and announce the failure of their gambling on absurd talks."