The Arab League yesterday approved the holding of direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but authorized PA President Mahmoud Abbas to decide when the talks should start.
The decision runs contrary to the PA's wishes: It had asked the Arab League's monitoring committee on the Arab peace initiative to reject direct talks and support the continuation of proximity talks.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamed Ben Jasem al-Thani, who heads the committee, was somewhat vague about its conclusions at the press conference that followed the meeting in Cairo.
"There is agreement, but only about the way the talks will be held and the subjects that will be discussed," he said.
He added that Abbas was authorized to decide when the time is right for resuming the direct negotiations.
In addition, Al-Thani said, the Arab League is demanding clearer guarantees from the Americans than they have yet offered about the framework of the direct talks.
About an hour prior to the Arab League's official announcement, Abbas addressed the gathering of the Arab states' representatives and asked them to back the continuation of proximity talks for the full four months that had originally been allotted for them. That was tantamount to asking the Arab League not to decide until September - which is also when the settlement freeze put in place by Israel's government is due to end.
Abbas said he is under heavy pressure - "never in my life have I experienced such pressure" - to agree to direct talks. And he may well have expected full support from the Arab states in resisting this pressure, as they have supported him steadfastly throughout the last few months.
But the events of the past week could have given Abbas a clue as to what was coming: Jordan's King Abdullah met publicly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in over a year, and a meeting between President Shimon Peres and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was scheduled for Sunday. The planned Peres-Mubarak meeting follows an announcement by Mubarak's spokesman on Wednesday about the receipt of American guarantees that could make it possible to resume direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
All this suggests that, with all due respect to the PA's wishes, the Arab League's major player are not looking for a confrontation with the administration in Washington. On the contrary: They are falling in line behind U.S. President Barack Obama like obedient soldiers with regard to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
According to the Qatari prime minister, the Arab League unequivocally opposed direct negotiations in the past, but has changed its view in light of what he termed the current "Arab situation."
"So long as Netanyahu is there, neither direct nor indirect talks will produce results," he said. "But we want to prove to the world that we are in favor of peace, without giving up on our rights."
It seems the main reason for the change in the Arab League's stance is what al-Thani had to say next: The league is convinced that Israel does not seriously intend to make peace, and is merely trying to buy time, "but we are convinced that U.S. President Barack Obama is serious in his intention to make peace."
This may be one of the most impressive achievements any American president has ever had in the Middle East: He pressured Arab states to back direct negotiations, and they did so, even at the cost of a minor confrontation with the Palestinians. Winning some brownie points at the White House was apparently enough to get the Arabs to withdraw their unconditional support for Abbas.
State Department officials were pleased by the Arab League's decision, saying it will spur direct talks. A department spokesman termed the news from Cairo encouraging, adding that the Qatari prime minister had sent a letter to Obama on behalf of the committee on the Arab peace initiative.
Ultimately, the spokesman stressed, the parties themselves will have to decide whether there is a basis for moving on to direct negotiations. But as far as the United States is concerned, he added, this is the right time.
Responding to a question on preconditions for negotiations and how they may affect the start of the talks, the spokesman said there was still work to be done ahead of direct talks, but the U.S. was in touch with all the parties involved.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported yesterday - citing a source it did not identify - that Haim Ramon, a senior official of the main opposition party, Kadima, had tried to convince chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to turn down any offer to move to direct negotiations with Netanyahu.
At a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week, Netanyahu charged that various people in Israel have been trying to convince the PA leadership not to negotiate directly with him, but said he would reveal their identities only behind closed doors because of the highly classified nature of the material.
Yesterday, senior members of Kadima accused Netanyahu and his associates of being behind the leak to Israel Radio. They also hinted that the prime minister had made use of top-secret intelligence material in order to attack opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni and Ramon.
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