PM Warned Over Further Rift With U.S. if Proximity Talks Fail to Make Progress

An argument broke out between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a key coalition ally, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor ), during yesterday's meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet.

Ben-Eliezer warned that Israel risked a rift with Washington and growing international isolation unless it makes rapid progress in proximity talks with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu rejected this concern, asserting that "American public opinion supports us."

According to sources present at the meeting, the prime minister interrupted Ben-Eliezer to make this point.

"We enjoy greater support in American public opinion [today] than we have for the last 20 years," Netanyahu said, pulling out recent poll data to prove his claim. He added that his telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama two days ago had been very encouraging.

Nevertheless, he said, "I'm interested in seriously trying to advance the peace process."

Though the proximity talks had been expected to start this week, both Israel and the United States are still waiting for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to announce his willingness to participate. That announcement is not anticipated to be made before Saturday.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, who will conduct the talks by shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, is already here. He met with Netanyahu yesterday for about three hours. The two will meet again today and Mitchell is set to meet with Abbas tomorrow. Only on Friday or Saturday, however, will the PLO's executive committee meet to approve Abbas' participation in the talks.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday criticized Abbas' behavior during a meeting with his visiting Czech counterpart, Jan Kohout. "The Palestinians' failure thus far to decide to hold the proximity talks, on all kinds of pretexts, raises questions about their seriousness," Lieberman said, according to a ministry press statement.

But a senior official in the PA president's office assured Haaretz that Abbas would announce his consent this weekend, as the terms of the talks have now been fully settled. Abbas' statement that he still needs the approval of the PLO executive committee is "for the record only," the official said, adding that either that body or the PLO Central Council will in any case issue the requisite approval this weekend.

A source close to the PLO's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Abbas has decided to personally head the negotiating team - which will include Erekat and other senior PA officials. The Palestinian Authority, the source added, will demand that the talks begin with the issues of borders and security arrangements, and will not agree to Israel's suggestion of making water - which the Palestinians consider a secondary issue - one of the top two agenda items.

However, Haaretz reported on Monday that Israel also wants security arrangements to be one of the first two agenda items, and so the two sides apparently agree on giving that topic priority.

Despite their stated intent to begin the talks, PA officials voiced great pessimism about the likelihood of any progress being made and utter distrust of Netanyahu and his government. They are only agreeing to the talks, they said, to prevent the Palestinians from being accused of thwarting progress.

King Abdullah weighs in

Abbas met in Amman yesterday with King Abdullah of Jordan, in what he described as part of a planned round of consultations with Arab leaders before the proximity talks are launched. Before going to Amman, Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and was briefed on Mubarak's meeting with Netanyahu on Monday.

While in Jordan, Abbas reiterated that the PA will stand by the Arab League's decision not to let the talks continue for more than four months unless clear progress has been made. At the end of the four months, he said, he will return to the Arab League - which last week approved the decision to embark on the talks - to present his assessment of the progress and his recommendation for whether or not they should be continued.