PA not ruling out direct talks

Decision on negotiations only after Mitchell’s next visit.

Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah on Monday did not rule out the possibility that the PA would agree to begin direct negotiations with Israel, in what appears to be a departure from its previous position.
According to the officials, the PA was now inclined to agree to hold direct negotiations, especially following assurances from US President Barack Obama to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
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“We don’t rule out direct talks,” said one official. “But before we move to these talks, we want to have a clear agenda and timetable.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Likud Knesset faction on Monday there was no alternative to “sitting around the table and talking,” and that the conditions were ripening for such talks. There was growing agreement among leaders in the world on the need for direct talks, Netanyahu said.
Another Palestinian official said the PA was waiting for US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell – who is scheduled to return to the region at the end of the week to once more push for direct talks – to see if he is carrying replies to a number of questions presented to him by the Palestinians.
Among the questions the Palestinians want answers to are whether Israel would be willing to freeze construction in all West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem, and to recognize the June 4, 1967, lines as the future borders of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu, when he was asked repeatedly during his visit to Washington last week whether he would extend the 10-month settlement freeze that expires on September 26, was careful not to give an unequivocal answer, saying that he wanted to first get into direct negotiations.
During an interview with ABC, Netanyahu said, “I think once we get there, realities may change.”
Obama, according to the PA officials, briefed Abbas on the outcome of his talks in Washington with Netanyahu.
Obama also urged Abbas to agree to direct talks with Israel, promising that the US administration would pressure Israel to refrain from “provocations” such as the construction of new houses in Jewish communities in the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem, they said.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed that Obama had urged the PA to agree to direct negotiations. He said that the Palestinians were waiting for Mitchell’s visit before making a final decision.
Erekat reiterated the PA’s demand for a complete freeze of settlement construction and acceptance of the pre-1967 lines as a condition for moving to the direct talks.
Erekat and other officials said they were unaware of reports that suggested that the direct talks could be resumed as early as the end of this month. Other reports, also unconfirmed, have said that Obama wanted to kick off the talks at a trilateral meeting between him, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September. The three men met together last year at the UN parley.
Netanyahu is expected to go to Sharm e- Sheikh on Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and discuss the issue of direct talks, with Abbas expected to meet with the Egyptian leader shortly thereafter. Netanyahu was originally scheduled to travel to Egypt on Tuesday, but that meeting was delayed a day for “logistical reasons,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Abbas has made it clear that he would not agree to launch direct negotiations with Israel unless he first received backing from the Arab League foreign ministers. The Arab League had approved an earlier request from Abbas to launch the indirect “proximity talks” with Israel, and the issue of Arab League approval was expected to be high on the agenda of the Netanyahu-Mubarak talks.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is also scheduled to arrive in the region on Saturday and go to Gaza on Sunday. She will be the first senior Western diplomat to visit the region since Israel significantly eased restrictions on what is allowed into the Gaza Strip.
A delegation of European foreign ministers, headed by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, is expected to visit Gaza before the end of the month. During a visit to Italy last month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman altered Israel’s policy of barring politicians from going to Gaza from Israel so as not to grant Hamas legitimacy, inviting Frattini to come with a half dozen of his colleagues to view the situation in the Strip and to bear witness that goods and merchandise are getting in.
Ashton’s visit will come about a week before the 27 EU foreign ministers are scheduled to hold their monthly meeting in Brussels. They are expected to discuss the situation in Gaza.