Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. envoy George Mitchell, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abb
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo by Getty Images and Reuters
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Senior U.S. officials have told their Palestinian counterparts that Washington believes direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians must begin as soon as possible. The Obama administration has informed Palestinian President Mahmoud 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 U.S. special envoy George 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," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Mitchell will meet with Abbas again Sunday in Ramallah before returning to Washington.

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 Benjamin 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."