Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has approved a French request to allow Qatar to build a new hospital in the Gaza Strip, government officials said on Tuesday evening.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the request when he met with Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly last week in New York, and Netanyahu said he would look into the matter, the officials said.
The two leaders spoke on Tuesday, and Netanyahu said he would instruct the defense establishment to approve the construction, which would entail allowing concrete and other building materials into the Strip, something Israel has been hesitant to do, for fear the material would be used to make weapons.
The Israeli officials termed this a gesture to Sarkozy in appreciation, in part, for the aggressive stand France has taken on the Iranian issue. Furthermore, it was a humanitarian gesture and an expression of the good relationship between Netanyahu and Sarkozy.
Meanwhile, a two-man Israeli delegation headed for Washington on Tuesday for talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, a week after President Barack Obama called on Mitchell to continue talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives to pave the way for relaunching direct negotiations.
Netanyahu's envoy on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff, Michael Herzog, are scheduled to meet with Mitchell on Wednesday. No direct talks with a Palestinian team, headed by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, are immediately in the offing.
Netanyahu's seven-minister inner cabinet met on Tuesday to discuss the recent diplomatic developments. The full security cabinet will be briefed on Wednesday and the full cabinet on Thursday.
The discussions with Mitchell will now likely focus less on the settlements, and more on the terms of reference for the negotiations and how they would be held.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a glimpse into the differences during his barely-reported speech on Friday to the UN General Assembly, in which he accused Israeli "intransigence" of blocking a relaunch of direct negotiations.
"How is it conceivable that negotiations can be held on the borders and on Jerusalem at the same time that Israeli bulldozers are working to change the reality on the ground with the aim of creating a new reality and imposing borders as Israel desires?" Abbas asked, apparently explaining why - until his meeting last week with Netanyahu and Obama - he had consistently said he would not negotiate until there was a total settlement freeze.
Regarding the disagreement over the nature of future talks, he said, "How can one conceive holding negotiations without agreement on the terms of reference and the objective end goal of these negotiations that the whole world has unanimously agreed upon - namely ending the Israeli occupation of the territories occupied in 1967, establishing the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, achieving a just and agreed-upon solution to the question of Palestinian refugees on the basis of [UN General Assembly] Resolution 194 of 1948, and achieving peace on all Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks as affirmed by the Arab Peace Initiative, which provides a precious opportunity that must be seized upon to achieve peace?"
Israel's position is that these terms of reference prejudge the outcome of the negotiations, and as a result, this issue has been one of intense wrangling with Mitchell for weeks.
The Palestinians are also believed to want to start the negotiations where they ended under prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert, in an interview broadcast Monday by the BBC, said the Palestinians had turned down his offer, which included 94 percent of the West Bank; another 6% of land inside Israel to compensate for the rest; taking in some 1,000 Palestinian refugees, or a bit more, each year for five years as a humanitarian gesture; and dividing Jerusalem so the Jewish neighborhoods would be part of Israel, the Palestinian ones would be the capital of a Palestinian state, and the "holy basin" - including the Temple Mount - would be under the joint administration of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinians, the United States and Israel.
Netanyahu has made clear that he is not committed to these positions, saying as much to Israeli journalists during a briefing he gave last week in New York.
Another issue of contention is the time frame of the talks. The Palestinians want an American commitment that the talks would be wrapped up in two years, while Israel does not want to commit to a set period.
Obama said he wanted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report back to him on the progress of the talks by mid-October. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that while they expected Mitchell to be back in the region in the near future, they had not heard of any plans at this time for a Clinton visit.
In a related development, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Victor Zubkov is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday for two days of talks, which are expected to focus on Iran and the diplomatic process.
Zubkov is set to meet with Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.