Netanyahu Agrees to Discuss Core Issues in Indirect Talks With Palestinians

UN Mideast envoy: Credibility of countries sponsoring Israeli-Palestinian peace process is at stake.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to visiting U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Tuesday that Israel would agree to discuss all the core issues in the indirect negotiations that are expected take place with the Palestinians over the coming months under American mediation.

Up to now, Netanyahu had refused to negotiate borders, settlements or the status of Jerusalem before the issue of security arrangements was resolved.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Despite Netanyahu's expressed willingness to deal with all core issues, sources close to the prime minister said he is most eager to deal with the refugee issue, with recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and security arrangements in a future Palestinian state. Nonetheless, the expectation is that borders and security arrangements will be the first two issues to be tackled.

No substantial progress was made at the meeting, which dealt with procedural matters as well as confidence-building gestures.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, emphasized the importance of the talks, saying that the credibility of the countries sponsoring the peace process is at stake.

Serry was referring to the Quartet in particular, which is made of the U.S., UN, European Union, and Russia.

The envoy said that 2011 is going to be a critical year to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and the international community must help the parties make very difficult decisions.

Israel's refusal to agree to a new freeze on settlements was a serious setback, according to Serry, who was speaking to the UN Security Council.

On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas is set to participate on Wednesday in a meeting of the Arab League's monitoring committee on the organization's own peace initiative, as part of a Palestinian effort to arrive at a unified Arab position on the future of talks with Israel under U.S. mediation. Recently some Palestinian officials have even advocated that the Palestinians refuse to participate in proximity talks with Israel unless the West Bank settlement construction freeze is renewed, but such a posture could result in a direct confrontation with the Obama administration.

Arab countries are coming under heavy American pressure to urge the Palestinians to show flexibility. The Palestinians have nonetheless sought to insist that the 1967 borders be the basis of any proximity talks, and that a U.S. document from five years ago on security arrangements provide the basis for negotiations.

In a meeting with Mitchell in Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas expressed his disappointment with the United States for failing to declare that talks on borders with Israel will be based on the 1967 borders. He said he was upset that Mitchell insisted that border negotiations won't necessarily be based on the 1967 lines, a condition to which former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had committed in the past. The Palestinians told Mitchell that Abbas already submitted a document to the United States in the spring detailing the Palestinian stance on all the core issues. They said their stance hasn't changed.

Abbas also expressed his disappointment at U.S. criticism of Brazil and Argentina, which both recently recognized an independent Palestinian state, saying that there is provision in the talks with Israel that prevents such recognition.