Arabs give Middle East talks four-month window

Arab League ministers on Wednesday backed a United States call for indirect Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, giving a boost to Washington’s efforts to revive the moribund peace process.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had said he would adhere to the decision of the Arab League committee that met in Cairo.

Israel welcomed the move. “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has been calling for the resumption of talks for some time and we hope now that the talks can move forward,” said spokesperson Mark Regev.

Syria, a staunch opponent of Israel, said the decision was not agreed by consensus and said it appeared aimed at giving “political cover” for a Palestinian decision already taken.

“Despite not being convinced about the sincerity of the Israeli side to achieve a just peace, the committee sees … indirect negotiations as a last initiative,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa told a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

“These negotiations should not be open-ended and must have a time limit not exceeding four months. The indirect talks should not be automatically translated into direct talks,” he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat had also said Arabs were not “convinced by Israeli intentions” but backed the US idea.

Indirect negotiations, or so-called proximity talks, are likely to involve shuttle diplomacy by a US mediator between Jerusalem and the nearby Palestinian town of Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians have played down the significance of indirect talks, saying US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell’s shuttle diplomacy over the past year has been merely that.

‘No consensus’
Erekat said if discussions failed the committee would meet in July to assess developments. Moussa said any failure would prompt Arabs to seek an emergency UN Security Council meeting.

Washington has been trying for a year to get Palestinians and Israelis to talk. Abbas broke off talks with Israel to protest its offensive in Gaza launched in December 2008.

“There was no consensus on the agreement taken by the Arab peace initiative committee,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told ministers, adding it was not for the committee to decide on talks and that this was up to Palestinians alone.

Syrian ambassador to the League, Yousef al-Ahmed, said the move appeared simply to give “political cover” for a Palestinian decision that had already been taken.

The Palestinian president has resisted US and Israeli calls for a resumption of direct negotiations, saying Israel must first halt all Jewish settlement building on occupied lands where the Palestinians aim to establish a state.

Netanyahu announced in November a temporary, limited freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank, but excluded East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians aim to locate their capital.

Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, has been critical of Washington’s mediation, saying President Barack Obama has not done enough for Middle East peace.

Abbas has also said Israel’s right-wing government is not interested in peace. Netanyahu has publicly outlined his vision of a Palestinian state with limited powers of sovereignty.

Palestinian officials have cited recent Israeli measures, including a plan to include West Bank religious sites in a Jewish heritage project and plans for more East Jerusalem homes, as evidence that Netanyahu is not sincere about peacemaking.

Announcement of the heritage plan last week has increased tension in the West Bank. It touched off violent protests and triggered calls for a new Palestinian uprising from Hamas Islamists, who control the Gaza Strip and are hostile to Israel.

Netanyahu has said the plan to renovate holy sites, including two in the West Bank revered by Muslims and Jews, would not impinge on Muslim freedom of worship.

Overnight, Israeli forces raided a Palestinian village near Jenin in the northern West Bank, wounding two members of the Islamic Jihad group, a Palestinian security officer said.

Islamic Jihad said the two men, leaders wanted by Israel for eight years, had fought gun battles through the night with the Israeli forces. They had been wounded and detained, it said. — Reuters

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