Israeli and American officials welcomed an Arab League decision reached in Cairo on Wednesday approving indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks for four months as a means of getting the peace process on track.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that it appeared “conditions were now ripe” for renewing negotiations.
In a speech to the Knesset, he said that as a result of Israel both expressing a willingness to return to talks and taking concrete measures on the ground to make them happen, fewer countries were willing to agree to Palestinian preconditions to the talks.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said for months that he will not talk with Israel unless there is first a complete halt to Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The green light given Abbas by the Arab League’s follow-up committee to the Arab peace initiative to enter into indirect talks for four months is widely seen in Jerusalem as the “ladder” he needed to come down from his demands and accede to repeated requests by the US, EU, Egypt and Jordan to return to talks.
In a statement read by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa at the Cairo meeting, he said, “Despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side, the committee sees that it would give the indirect talks the chance as a last attempt and to facilitate the US role.”
The US has been pushing for the resumption of talks primarily through the shuttle diplomacy of its Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, who is expected to continue as a go-between in the indirect negotiations.
Mitchell is preparing for a return visit to the region in the next few days, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who said the US “appreciated” the Arab League decision that created “momentum” for the process.
It is widely expected, however, that it will be US Vice President Joe Biden who delivers the official Palestinian Authority notification that it is willing to enter indirect negotiations, when he visits Israel and the PA next week. A senior Prime Minister’s Office official said that as of now, Israel has not received formal notification of the PA’s plans.
The official added that no details were yet available as to where the talks would take place, who would participate, in what framework, and for how long, though the Arab League presented a four-month deadline.
A senior US administration official said the Arab League was welcome to reevaluate the process after the four months had passed, but from the US perspective, “We have never put limits on any of this.”
He explained, “Our goal is to have negotiations as long as it takes to resolve all the final-status issues and resolve the conflict.”
Still, the US made it clear on Wednesday that it wanted to see the proximity talks evolve into direct negotiations in the near term.
“Ultimately the two parties in this channel as well as other channels are going to have to sit down face-to-face, deal with these issues, make some painful compromises along the way, and ultimately reach an agreement that ends the conflict,” Crowley said.
The Israeli official also indicated that the Israeli vision was for these discussions to be a conduit into direct talks.
“There are very serious issues on the agenda, and they can only be tackled within the framework of direct talks,” the official said.
At least one analyst agreed.
“The value of the proximity talks is if it provides a transition to direct talks, or as a cover for direct talks. If it’s only proximity talks, it is guaranteed to fail,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East policy. “There need to be direct talks for there to be direct confidence, and no third party arrangement can [deliver] that.”
He also said that he didn’t think the relevant third party here – the United States – would be providing any bridging proposals between the two sides, even though the Palestinians were demanding such positions before starting talks.
“You can bridge over a river. You can’t bridge over an ocean. The parties have to come close to each other for that to be an active option,” Makovsky said. “Anybody who believes that the US is putting forward an Obama plan will be sorely disappointed. I think the Obama administration is here to try to narrow the differences over territory or other matters.”
In fact, he said that he thought the US would be looking to see territorial issues as the “first order of business,” since it sees this as “the most ripe issue.”
Regardless of order of the issues addressed, the senior Prime Minister’s Office official warned that once the process was restarted, no one had any illusions that there would be a “quick fix.”
“Any negotiation process will demand a real commitment to make it work, and it will be complex,” he said. “But you can’t finish it if you don’t start.”
He also stressed, “Netanyahu has for the last 10 months consistently called for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and now we are hopeful that the process will move forward.”
The official added that there was no surprise in Jerusalem that Syria opposed the move, and that no one thought the Arab League committee’s decision would be receive the unanimous support of the 14 Arab nations that took part in the meeting.
During Moussa’s reading of the prepared statement on the decision, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem interrupted, insisting that the decision on whether to join indirect talks or not was up to the Palestinians.
“The Palestinians are better positioned to know what to do,” he said.
Hamas also rejected Wednesday’s decision.
The Damascus-based Hamas leadership leveled harsh harshly criticism, saying in a statement that it gave Israel “a chance to continue settlement activity” and increase Jewish control over the West Bank. It also blasted the PA for agreeing to talks without a full settlement construction freeze.
Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said the Hamas government “would not give any... permission to return to negotiations, whether it is direct or indirect, considering what is happening in... Jerusalem and Hebron.”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday denied Egyptian
media reports of a difficult telephone call on Tuesday night – on the
eve of the Arab League meeting – between Netanyahu and Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak.
Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz said the Egyptian media reports “did not
reflect” the nature of the phone call, which Netanyahu initiated to
discuss the efforts to restart the negotiations.
The conversation was held in a “positive” and “matter-of-fact” manner, Hefetz said.AP contributed to this report.