George Mitchell and Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands in Jordan
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Amman, Jordan in March 2010. Photo by AP
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After the latest round of talks with Speical U.S. Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, a cautious hope is emerging that indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with American mediation, will begin in the first half of May. As reported by Haaretz yesterday, President Barack Obama has invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the talks, although he has not been able to secure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a public and explicit commitment to a total freeze on construction for Jews in East Jerusalem for the duration of the negotiations. Obama asked Abbas to settle for an informal understanding that Israel would refrain from announcing "significant actions" in the eastern part of the city.

It seems that the Obama administration has grasped that Netanyahu's worldview and the composition of his coalition make it difficult for him to declare a building freeze in the capital. Abbas already stated a few months ago that he would not insist on an explicit Israeli declaration that the construction freeze in the settlements applied to East Jerusalem as well. But he did stress that he expected Netanyahu to do everything within his power to avoid provocations relating to planning and construction in the parts of Jerusalem that are east of the Green Line, such as the recent approval of 1,600 residential units in Ramat Shlomo.

The prime minister must apply to himself his demand from the Palestinians, and discard all preconditions for the start of negotiations. As was agreed at the November 2007 Annapolis Conference, the future of Jerusalem, like the issues of the borders, the refugees and security, is an integral part of the discussions on the final status. As was to be expected, the Palestinians have once again rejected the idea of declaring a state within temporary borders in exchange for postponing the issue of Jerusalem to the later stages of the negotiations.

The importance of ending the dispute and ensuring Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state makes it necessary to restrain the politicians and real estate developers who are eyeing building sites in East Jerusalem. If Netanyahu genuinely has this interest at heart then he must exercise his authority over his ministers and his coalition partners to ensure that the peace process is renewed and that the talks are held in a positive, comfortable atmosphere.