Mitchell to Israel, PA: Annapolis Understandings Are Non-binding

U.S. special envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week that the understandings reached following the 2007Annapolis Conference are non-binding in the current round of negotiations, Haaretz has learned.

The Obama administration announced Monday night that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to resume the peace process by means of indirect negotiations, facilitated by Mitchell.

Mitchell met with Netanyahu for two rounds of talks on Sunday and Monday, and then went to Ramallah to meet Abbas.

"I'm pleased that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have accepted indirect talks," Mitchell said in a statement last night. "We've begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks, and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions. As we've said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible."

The American envoy also called on "the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."

Sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau expressed satisfaction that negotiations are restarting after more than a year, but refused to comment on the details of the process.

The United States has told the Palestinians that if the sides do not meet expectations, it will "act accordingly."

A senior Palestinian source told Haaretz Monday that the Palestinians and the Arab League have received American assurances that "we will be actively involved in managing the indirect talks, and also proposing ideas and bridging ideas of our own."

The U.S. has allotted the process four months to reach results. Regarding whether the U.S. would then announce whether the sides' positions reflect the international consensus on the conflict, the Americans told the Palestinians that the U.S. "expects both sides to behave seriously, with honesty and in good will because, if one of the sides, in our judgment, does not fulfill our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly in order to overcome every obstacle."

The announcement that negotiations are resuming came despite disagreements between the three sides over the structure of the talks.

The Palestinians issued a strongly worded protest Monday after Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the settlement of Beitar Ilit, despite the construction freeze in the West Bank settlements.

In a Jerusalem meeting with quartet envoys on Friday, Mitchell's deputy David Hale said the negotiations after Annapolis and the understandings reached by Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qureia, as well as Ehud Olmert and Abbas, would not be binding.

The talks will be based on agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the road map.

Olmert had offered Abbas an Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, and Israeli territory in exchange for the remaining 6 percent. In addition, Israel would symbolically accept 5,000 Palestinian refugees and enable international governance for the holy sites in the Old City.

Abbas never responded to Olmert's offer, but the Palestinians insisted that the negotiations resume from where they stopped during Olmert's term as prime minister.

The U.S. apparently accepted Israel's position on the matter, which was to ignore everything that was not signed as part of an agreement.

The talks will also be based on the Obama administration's two statements from the past year: President Barack Obama's speech to the United Nations, which described the goal of a secure, Jewish state in Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine and an end to the 1967 occupation; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement regarding a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with territory exchanges, combined with Israel's desire for a secure Jewish state that includes "recent developments," meaning the settlement blocs.