US President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday night to assure him of his strong commitment to Israel’s security, just hours after US special envoy George Mitchell landed in Israel to start the much-anticipated “proximity talks” with the Palestinians.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that in the 20-minute conversation, the two leaders talked about “how to best work together to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East, in particular by making full use of substantive proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians and transitioning to direct negotiations as soon as possible.”

They also discussed regional challenges, said Gibbs.

“The president reaffirmed his unshakable commitment to Israel’s security,” he said.

Netanyahu and Mubarak meet in Egypt

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu flew to Sharm e-Sheikh to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to secure his support for resumption of the Mideast peace talks.

“A historic opportunity has opened up, which people will cry about for generations if it’s missed,” said Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who, along with National Security Council head Uzi Arad, joined Netanyahu for the brief trip.

Netanyahu met with Mubarak for an hour and a half. Along with the proximity talks, they discussed Gaza, the terror threat from Sinai, and nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

At the same time, Ben-Eliezer and Arad met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

“The Egyptians understand that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is key” to tackling other regional issues such as Iran, said Ben-Eliezer.

He added that the Israeli delegation had received a “most impressive” reception, and that he was convinced Egypt would make a positive contribution to the peace process.

Ben-Eliezer also raised the subject of kidnapped IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit with the Egyptians. Egypt has mediated on the matter between Israel and Hamas, which has held Schalit captive in Gaza for close to four years.

Mitchell, who is here until Sunday, will meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday. On that day, as well as Thursday, he will speak with other Israeli officials, including Netanyahu’s envoy in this matter, Yitzhak Molcho.

Israel has agreed to place all core issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and borders on the table during the proximity talks, but said that their resolution can only be done through direct negotiations.

In particular, it is important for Israel to know that its security concerns will be addressed in any final-status solution that is determined when there are direct talks.

Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has called for direct talks, while the Palestinians have refused to meet with Israel until construction is halted in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem.

On Friday, Mitchell will travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The PA said on Monday that the indirect talks with Israel would not begin until the PLO Executive Committee approved the move. It was unclear whether Abbas, who is out of the country, would seek PLO approval before or after his talk with Mitchell.

A US diplomatic official said that the Americans respected Abbas’s internal process, but that from their perspective, Mitchell had come with the understanding that both sides were ready to engage in talks.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official in Ramallah, said he expected the PLO’s committee to vote in favor of the decision to resume the talks.

On Saturday in Cairo, the Arab League said it backed the proximity talks.

In advance of his meeting with Mitchell, Abbas is scheduled to hold talks in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday with King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz on the latest developments surrounding the peace process.

On Wednesday, Abbas will brief Mubarak on his decision to resume talks with Israel.

'US says Israel will refrain from provocations'

Palestinian officials said that they had received US “assurances” that Israel would refrain from “provocations” during the talks by launching new housing projects in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. They said that these were the only assurances the US had given the Palestinians.

Israel has insisted that it plans to continue building in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. In November, however, it imposed a 10-month moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements.

On Monday, Abed Rabbo said that the US administration had pledged to take a “clear political stance and measures against any party that carries out provocations.”

He said that the Palestinians had been made to understand that initiating construction in east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements also fell under the category of “provocations.”

Abed Rabbo, who is also a close adviser to Abbas, said that in light of the US “commitments,” it would be possible to resume indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israel.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior aide to Abbas, said that the PA president had recently received a letter from Obama reiterating Washington’s commitment to the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Abdel Rahim also said the PA had received “assurances” that the Obama administration would take measures against any party that carried out provocative acts or tried to hamper the peace talks.

While US officials have acknowledged that Obama sent a letter to Abbas, they are pushing back against Palestinian claims of specific pledges that the administration made to get the talks going.

A State Department official referred to “inaccurate reports,” but added, “We are not going to get into the specifics of those private diplomatic conversations.”

The official did say that “we have discussed with both parties specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress toward peace.”

Another US official rejected the suggestion that America had indicated it might withhold its veto from UN resolutions condemning construction in east Jerusalem or other controversial Israeli behavior.

“There’s no change in our approach to the UN, which includes protecting Israel from being singled out for unfair criticism,” he said.

Meridor: East J'lem freeze not on the table

Intelligence Agencies Minister and Minister for Atomic Affairs Dan Meridor underlined that a building moratorium in east Jerusalem was not on the table.

When asked whether a deal to cease building had been agreed upon between Netanyahu and Obama, Meridor told Army Radio that “there is no Israeli promise not to build.”

“During the four to five months of negotiation, Israel made no promise not to continue building,” Meridor said.

The minister also stated that proximity talks alone would not be helpful.

“Only direct talks will create an enduring peace,”
he said.

“Israel is not interested in the status quo, Israel wants to move forward. The Palestinians want to move forward. Therefore it is in the interests of both sides to negotiate directly,” Meridor said.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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