Israel and Palestinians close to restarting peace talks

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are close to starting a new round of US-sponsored indirect peace negotiations that could begin within weeks.

The long-awaited proximity talks would be the first between the two sides since Israel’s war in Gaza began in late 2008. But even though there have been nearly two decades of negotiations, this time the talks would only be indirect, with the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said today the talks could start within a fortnight. “There is no final date yet, but I estimate that it is a matter of some two weeks,” Ayalon, who was in Washington, told Israel Radio.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is due to fly to Cairo on Monday to discuss the negoiations with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Mitchell will also return to the Middle East next week.

In a speech to his Likud party on Tuesday, Netanyahu also suggested talks were approaching. He said he had heard that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, “intends to renew the talks. I will be very glad if this will indeed be carried out next week”.

Palestinian officials say they will ask the Arab League to approve the idea of indirect talks with Israel. Abbas, interviewed on Israeli television, said the Palestinians “hope that the reply will be positive”.

‘Informal understanding’
There is no sign that this round of negotiations, expected to last initially for four months, will produce a breakthrough. Comments from both sides suggest an informal understanding has been reached about the issue of Jewish settlement building in Jerusalem, which had been the biggest hurdle to restarting negotiations.

Last year, Washington pressed Israel to halt all construction of settlements as a prelude to peace talks. Netanyahu refused, approving instead only a 10-month, partial halt to building on the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians said they could not enter negotiations without a halt to all settlement building, including in East Jerusalem. Last month, an agreement on indirect “proximity” talks collapsed within a day after Israeli officials announced approval for hundreds of new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement, much to Washington’s dismay.

Since then Netanyahu has refused any public commitment to halting settlement building in the city. However, reports suggest that planning officials have been told not to approve any big settlement projects. There are conflicting accounts about this, some suggesting it is a tacit political decision, others saying it is merely a bureaucratic delay.

Nir Barkat, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, gave a strongly worded defence of Israeli building and control in the city on Tuesday during a visit to Washington. He denied reports of a de facto freeze on Jerusalem settlement building. “There is no freeze,” he said. “It’s not true.” Barkat also said he could not accept Palestinian control of any part of Jerusalem, which he said would be equivalent to putting an Arab “Trojan horse” in a predominantly Jewish community.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it, with an extended boundary. The international community has never recognised Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which most governments still regard as occupied territory. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Nearly 500 000 Jewish settlers now live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even though settlement on occupied land is illegal under international law. –

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