Arab League Okays Start of Proximity Talks This Week

A new leftist European Jewish group, JCall, has written a letter to be delivered tomorrow to the European Parliament calling for a cessation of what it calls systematic support for Israeli government decisions.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians would begin this week. Speaking at a joint news conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammad Sabah Al-Sabah, Clinton said she was looking forward to yesterday's meeting in Cairo of the Arab League and its support of Abbas' commitment to the talks.

As expected, Secretary General Amr Moussa yesterday announced the Arab League's support for the proximity talks to start. It is unclear what achievements the Palestinian Authority presented to the Arab League to get it to support the talks, because the agreements between Israel and the United States that brought the PA back to the table are still unclear.

The PLO Executive Committee will meet soon to approve the Arab League's announcement, officially paving the way for the beginning of the talks.

Last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Arab League's announcement. A statement from Netanyahu's office said he was looking forward to the official Palestinian decision on renewing the talks, "any time, any place as long as it is without preconditions, as was the case over the past 16 years."

Responding to Palestinian negotiations chief Saeb Erekat's warning that talks would stop if construction in the West Bank resumed, the Prime Minister's Office said that anyone serious about renewing the peace process should avoid talking about preconditions because there weren't any in the past and won't be in the future.

Meanwhile, the White House denied reports Friday that President Barack Obama had told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a letter that if Israel took steps that seriously harmed confidence between the parties, the United States would not stand in the way of a UN resolution opposing such steps.

Describing the reports as inaccurate, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "We will continue to speak out strongly for Israel's right to self-defense and to oppose efforts to single Israel out unfairly for criticism."

With regard to Erekat's threat to stop the talks if construction resumes in the West Bank, officials in the prime minister's office said anyone who is really serious about renewing the peace process should avoid talking about preconditions because there weren't any in the past and won't be any in the future.

The talks, which will be mediated by U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell, are to deal with final-status issues - borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian daily Al-Ayam yesterday reported that if the proximity talks fail, Obama intends to call a peace conference. If the talks fail, Obama would announce a peace plan to be presented to the two parties, the paper said.

Speaking at the American Jewish Committee's annual gala dinner Thursday, Clinton stressed the importance of the Arab countries to the peace process. "We do not expect the Arab states to move forward in a vacuum," she said. "Israel must do its part by respecting the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, stopping settlement activity, addressing the humanitarian needs in Gaza, and supporting the institution-building efforts of the Palestinian Authority."

But Clinton said there were clear expectations of the Arab countries, including a cessation of weapons supplies to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, support for Abbas on negotiations with Israel, more funding to support the PA budget and steps to normalize relations with Israel.

"Iran, with its anti-Semitic president and hostile nuclear ambitions, also continues to threaten Israel, but it also threatens the region, and it sponsors terrorism against many," she said. "The United States has worked with the international community to present the leaders in Tehran with a clear choice: Uphold your international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations, or face increased isolation and painful consequences .... We are now working with our partners at the United Nations to craft tough new sanctions."

JCall, which describes itself as "the European J Street" and is to be officially launched tomorrow with the presentation of the letter, has raised a storm with its call to stop construction in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.

The letter is signed by some 3,000 Jewish intellectuals, among them philosophers Bernard Henri-Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, considered some of Israel's strongest defenders among French intellectuals. Signatories also include Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the student protests in the 1960s and now a member of the European Parliament, as well as other Jewish members of the European Parliament.

The letter calls occupation and settlements "morally and politically wrong," noting that they "feed the unacceptable delegitimization process that Israel currently faces abroad."

According to Prof. Zeev Sternhell, "The French Jewish left has decided that the official institutions do not represent most French Jews, and following the example of J Street, have decided that the time has come to do the same thing in Europe." He supports the letter but hasn't signed it.

Richard Prasquier, the chairman of CRIF, the committee representing French Jewish organizations, harshly criticized the document, saying that the petition will serve Israel's enemies.

The document calls on the European Union and the United States to pressure both parties "and help them achieve a reasonable and rapid solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict."

It says that systematic support of Israeli government policy is dangerous.

Meanwhile, Israel has repeatedly protested that the PA is using money from donor countries to promote a ban on products from the settlements.

A second meeting of the Knesset Economics Committee on the matter is to take place today. In the first meeting, Foreign Ministry official Yael Rabia-Tzadok told the MKs that the campaign to confiscate goods manufactured in settlements has moved ahead since the new economics minister in the PA government has taken office, Hassan Abu-Labda. She said PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad supports the campaign.