Mideast peace talks could begin as early as Sunday
Arab League: Complete settlement freeze is precondition for progress in Israel-PA negotiations.
Indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may begin as early as Sunday, Haaretz had learned. U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will land in Israel on Saturday night, and the American administration is hoping the sides will declare the beginning of indirect talks the following morning, ahead of the arrival of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Monday.
The foreign ministers of the Arab League announced in Cairo Wednesday they were supporting the American initiative for indirect negotiations, qualifying their support with a four-month deadline. They said no progress will be possible without a complete settlement freeze.
The announcement came after heavy American, Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi pressure was put on the Palestinians and on other members of the League. The pressure also resulted in the Palestinians' withdrawing a much tougher and reserved statement about the negotiations than the one eventually released. The Arab League decision was not unanimous and was strongly contested by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who went as far as to interrupt when Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, was reading out the statement, to say the decision on entering negotiations rested ultimately with the PA.
The foreign ministers set a four-month deadline for the first phase of indirect negotiations after which the Arab League will assess the progress of the talks and decide whether to offer further support.
The foreign ministers said their decision was a last effort to promote peace through negotiations and was meant to allow the American administration an opportunity to facilitate the process. "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," the statement read.
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 United Nations Security Council meeting to address the Arab-Israeli conflict and would ask Washington not to use its veto.
The Americans proposed the indirect talks as a way to allow the process to move forward without PA President Mahmoud Abbas' losing face by being seen as giving up on his demand for a complete settlement freeze. Abbas had also sought the Arab League's support to preempt Palestinian criticism of the move.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Wednesday in Gaza that he calls on the Arab League to review its decision.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented Wednesday in a Knesset speech that "it seems the conditions for proximity talks are ripening." He said: "All said and done, the world understands that this government is striving for negotiations. It has made some difficult steps to further these negotiations. It said things and did things," he said.
The prime minister also slammed the Palestinians for refusing "without justification and no reason whatsoever to reenter negotiations."
Netanyahu said: "I've said before that although you normally need two to tango, in this case you might need three. These negotiations may require some going back and forth, but Israel is not and never was an obstacle to negotiations."
American Vice President Joe Biden is expected to arrive here on Monday, and the American administration is keen to have the announcement of indirect negotiations before he lands, so he can congratulate the sides and present the talks as an American achievement.
Special envoy Mitchell will mediate the talks, which will be the first formal negotiations after a 15-month hiatus, since before Netanyahu took office. These will also be the first Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to take place under the Obama administration.
Negotiations have been at a standstill as Abbas refused to enter talks so long as any construction takes place in any settlement, including East Jerusalem.
At this stage, negotiations will focus on border issues, with the hope that if these can be resolved, the issue of settlement construction will be next on the agenda, followed by the core issues of the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.