The U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace will travel to the region over the weekend to see if Israel and the Palestinians are ready to begin indirect peace talks, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
George Mitchell's visit follows a declaration of support by Arab League ministers for such talks, a gesture that Washington hopes will allow the two sides to resume a dialogue, albeit via U.S. mediators, more than a year after negotiations broke off.
U.S. officials brushed aside criticism that if the talks began, the two sides would not even be in the same room, saying they would ultimately have to sit down together to end the six-decade conflict and that indirect talks were a start.
Having declared Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority when he took office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama has little to show for his efforts so far and U.S. officials seized on the Arab ministers' stance as a step in the right direction.
"We were very pleased by the endorsement that came out of Cairo today," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Brasilia. "(We) are very committed to try to bring about the two-state solution and we hope the proximity talks will be the beginning of that process."
"This is positive," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "Senator Mitchell will return to the region in the next few days to continue our efforts to relaunch negotiations as soon as possible."
A U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be named said Mitchell would leave over the weekend.
Arab League ministers earlier on Wednesday supported the U.S. call for so-called "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians under which Mitchell would shuttle between the two sides in an effort to end the six-decade conflict.
However, they said indirect negotiations should last no more than four months, should not automatically lead to direct talks and they questioned Israel's desire for a "just peace."
The public stance by the Arab ministers was designed to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regional cover to resume talks despite Israel's refusal to halt all building in settlements on the West Bank and in Jerusalem.
Crowley declined to say when indirect talks might begin, who might take part in them or where they might lead.
A second U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be named suggested that they might resemble Mitchell's efforts over the last year in which he has traveled between the two sides, and to regional players, to try to resume talks.
"Mechanically you should expect proximity talks to look roughly like the talks you've had about relaunching negotiations over the past year," this official said, without elaborating.
Netanyahu: Conditions ripening for peace talks
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Wednesday welcomed the Arab League decision to support U.S.-brokered indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.
"It seems that the conditions are ripening for the renewal of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," he told the Knesset, during a special session Wednesday.
"In the Middle East you need two to tango, but it could be that we need three to tango and we might need to leapfrog at first but the obstacle isn't and never was Israel."
"The world understands - and how - that this government wants negotiations and has taken steps, not simple ones, to promote talks," Netanyahu added, in an apparent reference to a partial settlement freeze that Abbas has termed inadequate.
Netanyahu, however, also defended his decision to include two holy sites located in the West Bank to Israel's list of national heritage sites that are to be preserved.
"They are part of our heritage," Netanyahu said at the Knesset. "How can we not include these sites?"
Netanyahu added, "We are not here by chance. We are here because we have a fundamental, deep connection to the land that has continued for almost 4,000 years. We have to enable the younger generation to connect with our heritage in new ways. We have created a plan and a budget, and this is something that must cross party lines."
The United States has proposed indirect negotiations, with American officials mediating, to end the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians over the conditions for resuming negotiations Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down more than a year ago, when Israel launched a bruising offensive against the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers.
The gathering of 14 Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo agreed.
Despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side, the committee sees that it would give the indirect talks the chance as a last attempt and to facilitate the U.S. role, said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, reading from a statement.
Moussa said Arab foreign ministers backed the talks on the condition that they last four months. This should not be an open-ended process, he said.
The ministers also said the indirect negotiations, which would see U.S. officials shuttling back and forth between the sides, should not turn into direct Israeli-Palestinian talks without a total freeze in settlement construction.
Netanyahu instituted a 10-month halt on new construction in the West Bank in November, but the measure does not include building that was already started or construction in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.
Moussa stressed that even indirect negotiations are doomed to failure if Israeli measures such as settlement construction continue. He warned that if indirect talks fail to yield results, the Arabs will call for an emergency Security Council meeting to address the Arab-Israeli conflict and would ask Washington not to use its veto.
Abbas has been under strong pressure from U.S.-allied Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to accept the American proposal for indirect talks, but the Palestinian president has told Arab leaders he will not take this step alone.
He has been eager to secure U.S. guarantees that Israel will be committed to the outcome of the talks before agreeing to negotiations, but said Tuesday he would adhere to the Arab foreign ministers' decision.
Wednesday's statement did not receive the unanimous support of the 14 Arab nations that took part in the meeting.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem interrupted Moussa while he was reading the statement, insisting that the decision on whether to join indirect talks or not was up to the Palestinians. "The Palestinians are better positioned to know what to do," he said.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which wrested power from Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007, rejected Wednesday's decision, calling it inappropriate in light of rising tensions over religious sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron.
Gaza's Hamas ruler, Ismail Haniyeh, said the Hamas government would not give any ... permission to return to negotiations, whether it is direct or indirect, considering what is happening in ... Jerusalem and Hebron.
Last week, Israel placed two West Bank shrines, including one in Hebron, on a list of national heritage sites, enraging Palestinians, who claim the West Bank for a future state and see the move as an attempt by Israel to cement its presence there.
Vice President Joe Biden is expected in the region next week to push the peace efforts.
Meanwhile, the Mideast quartet - Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States - is slated to meet in Moscow on March 19 to discuss new peace efforts in the region.
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