Arab FMs to Decide Whether to Support Israel-PA Talks

Arab foreign ministers will meet in the Libyan city of Sirte this evening to discuss whether to endorse the continuation of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority or to call on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to quit the negotiations to protest Israel's resumption of construction in West Bank settlements.

The foreign ministers on the Arab League's Monitoring Committee on the Arab Peace Initiative are expected to take a mixed position on the issue. The Arab League will avoid outright rejection of direct talks with Israel and will likely adopt a formula put forth by the Palestinian leadership last week, according to which there will be no talks as long as construction continues.

Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath said yesterday that the Palestinians would accept a U.S. proposal to extend the construction freeze by two to three months in exchange for direct talks that would focus on borders, which he said should put an end to the settlement construction issue.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. administration's message to the Arab League is that "there was a seriousness of purpose [by Israel and the Palestinians] that we thought was productive and could lead us on a path to something that generations have been seeking. And we hope that even in the disappointment of a decision on settlement moratoriums that we can continue those direct talks and we hope to do that."

Israeli-Palestinian talks are just one of the issues the Arab League will be discussing at its summit Saturday.

One of the leading issues troubling the Arab world is the future of Lebanon, in view of growing tensions over the findings of an international commission of inquiry investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

All the same, this will be an opportunity for Abbas, who arrived in Sirte yesterday and is expected to address the monitoring committee tonight, to remind the Arab world to transfer funds they had previously pledged to donate to the Palestinian Authority.

A senior Abbas aide warned yesterday that it was impossible to participate in a "serious peace process" with the current Israeli government.

"There is not going to be a real and serious peace process as long as there is this Netanyahu government," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team. "This government is not serious about achieving peace in the region."

Abed Rabbo said Israel's government "is always singing the praises of peace, but on the ground it is putting every obstacle in the way of real progress."

Meanwhile, Hamas called on the PA to end the talks and urged Arab leaders to stop supporting them.

"We call on the Sirte summit to lift its cover for all forms of negotiations because their consequences will be dangerous for Palestinian rights and principles," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said in a statement.