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(photo credit: AP)
Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Sunday sent out contrasting signals regarding restarting negotiations, on the eve of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to London.
While Netanyahu told the cabinet that the talks could begin by the end of September, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas said there would be no negotiations as long as there was any building going on in the settlements.
"Israel, the US, and others are interested in resuming direct talks with the Palestinians. This can possibly be done in late September, but will first require reaching understandings with the Americans and the Palestinian Authority," the prime minister said at the weekly cabinet meeting, the first time he has mentioned a date for restarting the talks.
He is leaving on Monday for a four-day trip to Europe, during which he will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US Mideast negotiator George Mitchell in London, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Netanyahu said the negotiations with the Americans leading up to his meeting with Mitchell had been held in a "good atmosphere, in a real attempt by the sides to bring their positions closer."
While there was not "complete agreement," the points of disagreement have been reduced, he said. Furthermore, the atmosphere in the talks was much more positive.
But while Netanyahu was painting a relatively upbeat picture, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said that Abbas had sent an "urgent message" to the US administration saying he would not return to the negotiating table with Israel as long as construction in the settlements continued.
While the details of the understandings between Israel and the US regarding settlement construction are being kept very much under wraps, there is little expectation that Israel would agree - or that the US at this point would force - a complete shutdown of all construction beyond the Green Line.
Despite Abbas's threat, a top PA official told The Jerusalem Post that he did not rule out the possibility that Abbas would agree to resuming talks with Israel. The official pointed out that the PA president had come under heavy pressure from the US to retract his earlier decision to boycott the talks unless Israel halted all settlement construction.
Abbas said in his message that Israel's policy of building in the West Bank and Jerusalem was aimed at torpedoing US President Barack Obama's efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East on the basis of two states for two peoples, Abu Rudaineh said.
The spokesman said that reports about plans to build new homes for Jewish families in eastern Jerusalem were designed to thwart talks between Netanyahu and Mitchell.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the Netanyahu government was refusing to resume talks with the Palestinians from the point where they ended under the previous government of Ehud Olmert.
Erekat also accused Israel of failing to fulfill its obligations under the road map plan for peace in the Middle East, especially with regards to freezing settlement construction, including for natural growth in these communities.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, said at a press briefing on Sunday that he didn't think it was possible - considering the resolutions passed at the recent Fatah convention in Bethlehem - to bridge the gaps with the PA.
"I read the Fatah resolutions," Lieberman said. "There is no way to bridge Israeli and Palestinian positions in the near future."
He said that while at Oslo it was said that there would be a comprehensive agreement within five years, "I don't think there will be a comprehensive agreement in another 16 years.
"It will be impossible in the next 16 years to bridge the gaps on Jerusalem, on the refugees, or on Israel as a Jewish state," he said.
Rather then trying to look for a comprehensive solution, Lieberman said energy would be best spent at managing the crisis: improving the economic situation for the Palestinians and the overall security situation.
He said that there were a number of conflicts in the world that have not been solved - Cyprus, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, to name a few - but normal life has continued in those places.
Lieberman said that the two-state vision would not lead to an end to the conflict, and that were a Palestinian state created along the pre-1967 lines, in no time Israeli Arabs would be demanding autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev.
It had been a mistake to create the illusion that a peace could be achieved in a short period of time, he said.
He also said it was a mistake to make the Palestinian issue the Foreign Ministry's primary focus, something he said he was changing - as evidenced by his recent visit to South America, the first visit there by an Israeli foreign minister in 23 years, and by his planned visit to Africa next week.
Lieberman said that while he did not believe anything would come of the current efforts to relaunch the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, he was willing to let others try.
He also said that the US administration had a great deal on its plate - Afghanistan, North Korea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Zimbabwe - just to name a few hot spots, and "I don't think we have to make things more difficult for the Americans."
Lieberman made clear that he was giving Netanyahu room to maneuver in his talks with Mitchell, and was not setting any "red lines.
At the same time, he also said it was clear that Israel could not freeze "normal life" in the settlements.