Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in his office for three hours on Wednesday with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, but it will not be clear for a few days whether this was indeed the long-awaited start to US-mediated indirect talks.
While Israel has said it agreed to the indirect proximity talks as a corridor into direct talks later, the Palestinian Authority is waiting for final approval from the PLO’s Central Committee.
“Until now we can’t say whether there’s an agreement [to resume the talks] or not,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Jordan on Wednesday.Analysis: Proximity’s silver lining?
“There’s an Arab League position which, of course, is very important. On Saturday, the Palestinian leadership will hold a meeting and then we will inform George Mitchell that we are to launch the negotiations and discuss the final-status issues,” Abbas said.
The Arab League endorsed indirect talks for four months at a meeting it held in Cairo on Saturday.
Neither Israel nor the US released any information about the content of the Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting, except for a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office saying that part of the discussion was one-on-one, and the other part included Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad from the Israeli side, and Dan Shapiro from the White House and Mitchell’s deputy David Hale on the US team.
The Prime Minister’s Office also said that Mitchell would be meeting with Netanyahu again on Thursday. The US envoy is then expected to travel to Ramallah and meet with Abbas on either Friday or Saturday, and to leave the region on Sunday.
One diplomatic official said that those expecting the proximity talks to somehow look different than the shuttle diplomacy that Mitchell has conducted between Jerusalem and Ramallah over the last number of months would be disappointed.
Nevertheless, the content of the discussions is expected to shift from how to get into negotiations, to the issues themselves. Even on this, though, there is disagreement about what “core” issue to discuss first, with Israel interested in talking first about security issues and its demand for the PA to recognize Israeli as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians desirous of starting off with a discussion about borders.
One difference, however, between these talks and those that came before, one diplomatic official pointed out, is likely to be the length of the discussions. While in the past Mitchell’s meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas did not generally exceed an hour, Wednesday’s meeting was considerably longer.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said during a photo-op in Jerusalem with his Czech counterpart, Jan Kohut, that “the very fact we are holding talks with the Palestinians is important, but I am still wondering about their intentions. It is not a reasonable situation to negotiate with us on the one hand, yet on the other to commemorate terrorism by naming streets after terrorists such as Yihyeh Ayash [aka ‘The Engineer’].”
A security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, where a government report on incitement was to be presented, as well as a new mechanism to monitor incitement at regular intervals, was postponed for a week because the ministers were called to the Knesset for a vote.
Lieberman also said he found it “very strange” that while Israel had given the Palestinians a permit for an additional Palestinian cellular provider, the PA has banned all Israeli cellular products.
The very fact that the PA had not yet announced that it was entering into indirect negotiations, “while giving various excuses,” raised doubts about the “seriousness of the other side,” Lieberman said.
He said he hoped that despite this, “we will manage to hold talks in a proper manner.”
Meanwhile, a PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post
that when and if the indirect talks were launched, the PA would be negotiating with the US and not with Israel, because it had no confidence in the Netanyahu government.
“Indirect talks mean that we will negotiate with the Americans, who, for their part, will be negotiating with Israel,” the official said. “It’s easier for us to negotiate with the Americans because they share most of our positions, especially on the issues of security and the future borders of the Palestinian state.”
The official said the Arab League’s decision to support the proximity talks came after the Palestinians and the Arab countries were “assured” that the US administration would exert “unprecedented pressure” on Israel to stop construction not only in the West Bank, but also in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
“For the next four months, we will be negotiating with the Americans,
and they will be negotiating with the Netanyahu government,” the PA
official said of the indirect talks. “If after that period we and the
Americans reach the conclusion that the Israeli government is just
wasting our time, we will have to decide whether to proceed or not. The
Americans have promised to be tough with Israel, and we expect them to
fulfill their pledge.”
Abbas said on Wednesday after his meeting with Jordan’s Abdullah that
the indirect talks would continue only for four months, after which the
Palestinian leadership would once again seek the approval of the Arab
League foreign ministers for moving on to the next phase.
“During the indirect talks, we want to talk only about final-status
issues, including borders and security,” he said. “There’s no need to
go into small details or other issues because we discussed them in
previous negotiations [with the government of Ehud Olmert].”
Earlier in the day, Abbas met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak and discussed with him the latest developments surrounding the
Middle East diplomatic process. On Tuesday, Abbas met in Riyadh with
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and briefed him on the outcome of US
efforts to launch the proximity talks.