Israel, Palestine say talks to start soon
Israeli and Palestinian officials said on Sunday they expected to start indirect peace talks within days, following the Arab League's endorsement of a US-brokered plan to end the impasse.
"From the very start we have been in favour of peace talks without preconditions and the objective is to start in the coming days, at the latest next week," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told public radio.
"It is a positive development. The Arabs also want to break the deadlock," Ayalon added, referring to the Arab League decision Saturday to back a US plan to mediate talks between the sides as a prelude to direct negotiations.
US President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy George Mitchell is due back in the region for another round of shuttle diplomacy this week and is expected to hold talks with both sides.
"President Abbas will meet with Mitchell on Friday," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has so far not officially announced a meeting between Mitchell and the premier. Local media reports say the US envoy will meet Israeli officials on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Abbas said in a newspaper interview published Sunday that with the Arab League giving its blessing and a similar endorsement expected from the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee this week, the US- sponsored talks could now go ahead.
"They will begin immediately and last for four months," Abbas told the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam.
He added that his planned visit to Washington this month will be for bilateral talks with Obama. "There is no plan for a tripartite summit with Netanyahu," he said.
Netanyahu himself is to fly to neighbouring Egypt on Monday to consult with President Hosni Mubarak on the latest peace moves.
Direct talks with the Palestinians collapsed when Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
In March, the Palestinians agreed to participate in US-mediated indirect talks for a period of four months.
But those plans collapsed when Israel announced during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden that it would build 1,600 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, in a neighbourhood named Ramat Shlomo.
The announcement infuriated the United States and the international community.
The Cairo-based Arab League's decision to endorse the indirect talks was taken by its committee of foreign ministers after "guarantees" from Obama in a letter to Abbas.
"Despite the lack of conviction of the Israeli side in achieving peace, the committee affirms what was agreed on the 2nd of March 2010 in regards to the time period for the indirect negotiations," an Arab League statement said.
Erakat told a Cairo news conference on Saturday that any Israeli construction in disputed east Jerusalem would bring an immediate halt to the talks.
"If they build one unit out of the 1,600, we will not go to the talks," he said.
Israeli ministers attending the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday said Erakat's comments did not bode well for coming negotiations.
"Trying to impose preconditions like this ... it's not an encouraging sign," Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz told reporters.
"We need to explain to Erakat that Israel will continue to build in Jerusalem," hardline Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said. "We shall not build just one house in Ramat Shlomo, we shall build many houses."
Asked in Sunday's radio interview if Israel was considering a construction freeze in east Jerusalem, Ayalon said: "On the ground, we will not prevent life from continuing because a question of principle, even of morals, is involved."
Israel has welcomed the Arab League endorsement but says it awaits formal acceptance by the Palestinians.
However, the militant Islamic Hamas movement which rules the Gaza Strip condemned the League's decision. "Hamas completely rejects any negotiations with the occupation," it said, labelling US guarantees "a trick."