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Palestinians are expected to join Israel in indirect peace talks

The Arab League endorses the U.S. proposal, paving the way for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to say yes.

March 04, 2010|By Edmund Sanders

Reporting from Jerusalem — A year after peace talks collapsed, Israelis and Palestinians appear headed back to the negotiating table -- just not the same table.

A U.S.-backed proposal to launch so-called proximity talks moved forward Wednesday when the Arab League gave its blessing for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join the effort.

Under the American plan, U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell will meet separately with Israelis and Palestinians in hopes of narrowing their differences and getting both sides back in the same room. Analysts call it an incremental step, but perhaps better than nothing.

In its statement, the Arab League said it was endorsing the U.S. plan "despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side." The group consisting of 14 of the league's member states suggested a four-month deadline, after which Palestinians should evaluate whether to continue.

Palestinians are refusing to resume face-to-face talks until Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a 10-month moratorium on some Jewish construction in the West Bank, but has pushed forward with housing projects in disputed parts of Jerusalem.

Abbas, who was in Cairo this week to confer with Arab leaders, had signaled that he would follow the recommendation of the Arab League. Palestinian officials are scheduled to meet over the weekend, when they are expected to formally announce their participation in the U.S.-brokered process.

Israeli officials welcomed the news.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu for months now has been calling for talks and we now hope that it will indeed be possible to move forward," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.

Many observers remained skeptical about whether indirect talks will yield results, with some saying substantive discussions are unlikely to take place unless Israel halts its settlement development.

"Resuming indirect negotiations was an American initiative in the first place, and now they need to put more efforts in order to force Israel into stopping the settlements," said Wahid Abdel Maguid of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

The Arab League decision reflected fears among Arab leaders that a renewed uprising among disaffected Palestinians could further undermine the position of Abbas and bolster Iranian-backed radicals such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. "They want to give a boost to Abbas but they know the talks will amount to nothing," said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at American University of Beirut.

Many in Israel see indirect talks as a step backward in light of the fact that Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating face to face for decades. Some analysts warned that a collapse of proximity talks could even make the situation worse by heightening frustrations or triggering more violence.

Said one senior Israeli official privately: "This is not our idea. But maybe it will serve as a corridor to restarting talks."


Special correspondents Amro Hassan in Cairo and Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.

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