Arab League foreign ministers on Thursday authorized the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct negotiations with Israel, but left it up to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to decide on the timing.

Jerusalem immediately welcomed the decision, taken at a special meeting in Cairo, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issuing a statement saying he was “prepared to begin direct and honest discussions with the Palestinian Authority in the coming days.”

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The US, which has been urging Abbas to switch from the current “proximity” talks to direct talks, also praised the move, and said it would seek to convene the direct talks “as soon as possible.”

Netanyahu added that it would be possible through direct negotiations to soon reach an accord “between the two peoples.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, currently in Washington, also praised the move, saying that only direct negotiations would lead to two states for two peoples. He added that the negotiations would require “difficult and courageous” decisions from both sides, and that he hoped the Palestinians “also realize that.”

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said the Arab foreign ministers decided to send a letter to US President Barack Obama explaining the Arab position vis-a-vis the entire peace process in the Middle East.

Abbas told the foreign ministers that Obama had been exerting heavy pressure on him to enter direct negotiations, a PA official in Ramallah said. Abbas told the ministers he saw no reason why he should succumb to the American pressure in light of the fact that no progress has been achieved during the current US-brokered proximity talks.

The US pressure, according to Israeli officials, was leveled not only at the PA, but also at the Arab League to ensure that it not “handcuff” Abbas.

One senior Israeli official said that the League’s decision could have been “much worse,” and that it could have piled on a number of conditions for Abbas before enabling him to enter the talks.

“Abbas now has the backing to go into the talks,” the official said, adding that the Arab League gave him the ball to do with it what he wanted.

The official said Jerusalem made no commitments to ensure the Arab League green light. Israel’s position is that it would not institute new confidence building measures toward the PA to get it into direct talks, but that once the talks began both sides would be expected to take steps to improve the atmosphere and ensure the talks succeed.

The official, who said he was fairly optimistic that direct talks would resume, gave no indication of where the negotiations would be held, or in what format.

In Washington, meanwhile, a State Department official said the US was “encouraged by reports that Arab states meeting in Cairo agree on the need to resume direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to reach a final-status agreement. In the days ahead, we will continue to work with the parties, Arab countries, and our international partners to launch these negotiations as soon as possible.”

The Qatari minister said that Thursday’s meeting did not discuss when and how the direct talks would take place. “The Palestinians will decide when conditions are suitable for the negotiations,” he said.

“We are sure that Israel is not serious about the peace process,” the minister said. “Israel just wants to waste time. On the other hand, we are confident that the US is serious and we are sure of Obama’s intentions to achieve peace.”

He said that the Arab ministers were originally opposed to direct talks with Israel, but changed their mind due to the “situation in the Arab world.”

He added: “Whether we hold indirect or direct talks with Israel, there will be no progress as long as [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is around. But we want to prove to the world that we want peace, without giving up our principles, and that there’s a price for peace.”

Asked if the US administration had given the Arab League any “assurances,” the Qatari minister said: “The Arabs don’t have guarantees; we only have hopes and fears.”

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, however, told reporters after the meeting that Obama’s message to Abbas, which included a pledge to work toward achieving a two-state solution, was tantamount to assurances.

“We don’t want lengthy talks that would allow the continuation of settlement construction and Israeli practices [on the ground],” Moussa stressed. “We know that Netanyahu is not serious. But we are addressing the US because the Americans are addressing us. We won’t enter negotiations without a time limit or a reference, as was the case in the past. The Israelis are playing a political game by winning time. This is what we are trying to prevent by proving that they are not serious.”

Muhammad Dahlan, a senior Fatah official, said in response to the Arab ministers’ decision that the PA’s position has not changed.

“We continue to insist on receiving assurances before moving to direct talks that would serve as a reference for the peace process and would be based on the two-state solution,” Dahlan said. “It’s clear to us that the US administration has failed to get any assurances from Israel. Nor has it managed to change the Israeli government’s position. Therefore we declare that we won’t move to direct negotiations until the conditions set by Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are fulfilled.”

Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.

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