Israel has agreed to discuss all core issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, when the proximity talks begin this week, a government official told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night.
As he spoke, the Arab League met in Cairo and endorsed the talks.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the Arab League’s support.
Already on Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the indirect talks.
She expressed the hope that this would soon lead to direct negotiations, where the final-status issues dividing the two sides would be worked out.
US special envoy George Mitchell is expected to return to Israel early this week, possibly on Monday, so that he can mediate the indirect talks.
An Israeli official said, “We are willing to discuss the core issues in the framework of the proximity talks, but it has to be only a preliminary discussion of the core issues.”
These issues, which also include borders, a demilitarized Palestinian state and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, can only be resolved through direct talks, the official added.
The Palestinian Authority on Saturday briefed Arab League foreign ministers on the outcome of US efforts to relaunch peace talks with Israel.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas said last week he wanted to engage in indirect talks but needed the Arab League to support the process.
The meeting was chaired by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasem al-Thani and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
It was attended by representatives of Jordan, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Sudan, in addition to the PA and Qatar.
A PA official in Ramallah said that PA negotiator Saeb Erekat presented the Arab representatives with a detailed report on the results of Mitchell’s trip to the region last weekend.
The official told the Post that the PA was satisfied with “assurances” it received from the US administration regarding construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
“I think we should give the US another chance to resume the peace process,” the official said, adding that Washington has adopted a “positive” approach toward Palestinian demands. He said that there was no reason now why the Arab League should not back the PA’s decision to resume the peace talks with Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters Saturday in Shanghai, China, that the Palestinians' executive committee will meet soon to make a final decision on resuming talks.
He also confirmed reports that he will visit Washington later this month for talks with U.S. officials "to push the peace process forward."
The PA halted direct talks with Israel in December 2008, to protest the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
After Netanyahu took office in March 2009, the PA said it wouldn’t resume the negotiations until Israel halted all Jewish construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem.
Israel has said it plans to continue building in east Jerusalem. It did, however, declare a 10-month moratorium in late November on new housing starts in the West Bank settlements.
To break the impasse, the PA in March agreed to indirect talks, but called them off almost immediately when – during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden – the Interior Ministry advanced a plan to build 1,600 homes in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
The PA has since insisted that Israel must halt construction in east Jerusalem as a precondition for such talks and the West Bank.
On Saturday night Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters that Israel must halt settlement activity if it wants the talks to proceed.
“If Israel builds one house in the West Bank, Palestinians will immediately stop the negotiations,” he said.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Nir Hefetz said that the prime minister has said many times that he wants to renew peaces talks with the Palestinians “any time, any place.”
He added, “that this must be done without any pre-conditions as it has for the last 16 years.”
The prime minister’s position has not changed in this regard, said Hefetz.
The start of proximity talks this week would mark the first time, since late 2008 that any movement has been made in the peace process.
An Israeli government official told the Post that the US was committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations between the parties, and not through an international summit or by asking the UN Security Council to set the borders of a Palestinian state.
“The only way to achieve peace is through direct negotiations between the two parties, everything else is an illusion,” the official said. “The goal is preliminary talks that will lead to direct talks.”
It is hoped that once the proximity talks are underway, the Palestinians will focus their energies on a negotiated solution.
“We have seen in the last few months a Palestinian strategy to avoid negotiations and to to go places like the UN where they have an automatic majority and can force concession from Israel without having to make any of their own, the official said.
“Now that the diplomatic process is starting, we hope we will see an end to that,” the official continued.
In Washington on Friday, Clinton declined to comment on reports that US President Barack Obama had sent Abbas a letter extending guarantees on American positions or on assistance in achieving a Palestinian state within two years.
In advance of the proximity talks, Netanyahu plans to head to Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
It is Netanyahu’s fourth visit to Egypt since taking office.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has great respect for President Mubarak and his political experience. Now that we are restarting the [peace] process, he wanted to consult with the Egyptian leader as to how we can move this process forward in a successful way,” an Israeli government official said.
On Thursday, in an appearance before the American Jewish Committee in Washington, Clinton urged Arab states to do more to help the parties move toward negotiations and peace.
“We will continue to emphasize the responsibilities of Israelis and Palestinians, who must ultimately themselves negotiate a two-state solution. But there are also clear expectations of the Arab states,” she said on Thursday night.
She called on the Arab countries to support Abbas in negotiating with Israel, in providing assistance with the two-year development plans the PA is pursuing, and to make gestures of normalization toward Israel. The latter demand was emphasized last year but in recent months dropped out of focus until Clinton’s speech last week.
She also stressed the importance of Arab states stopping weapons from getting into the hands of terrorist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas.
“Every rocket smuggled into southern Lebanon or Gaza sets back the cause of peace,” she declared.
Clinton noted that the terrorist organizations are growing in capability, saying, “They have stockpiled tens of thousands of increasingly sophisticated rockets in Gaza and southern Lebanon – rockets they aim at Israeli homes and civilians.”
And she noted Syria’s role in supplying these arms, something she strenuously condemned.
“[Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region,” she warned, before arguing that the dangers in the region added to the need for a US ambassador in Damascus.
Many critics argue that sending an ambassador would reward Syria and are calling for the Senate to hold up the confirmation of the administration’s nominee.
But Clinton countered, “We know he’s [Assad’s] hearing from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria.”AP contributed to this report.
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