Arab League gives US a month to keep direct talks alive

Grace period ends just after American congressional elections.

Abbas Moussa 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas Moussa 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel and the US will continue intensive efforts to ensure direct Israeli-Palestinian talks following the Arab League’s decision to give American mediators another month to find a formula to keep the talks from collapsing, government officials said on Saturday night.
The Arab League’s foreign ministers, in a much-anticipated meeting in Libya on Friday, coupled the league’s decision to proffer a month of grace – which will end just after November 2’s US midterm elections – with a declaration of support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to negotiate unless Israel renews the settlement construction moratorium.
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“We support the Palestinian president’s position calling for a complete halt of all settlement activities in order to resume negotiation,” the Arab League’s deputy secretary- general, Ahmad Bin Helli, said as he read a statement issued after the ministerial meeting.
But the ministers said they would resume meetings in a month to study alternatives and decide on the next steps, giving the United States extra time.
The month-long grace period ensures that if the talks do collapse, it won’t happen until after the US elections. The Democratic Party is struggling to retain control of Congress, and a highprofile foreign policy failure for President Barack Obama at this time would only further hurt his party’s electoral chances.
Israel had no formal response to the Arab League decision, though it was widely expected in Jerusalem that the League – under intense US pressure – would find a way to avoid bringing down the talks at this time.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who did not issue a statement following the meeting in Libya, may address it at the opening of the cabinet meeting on Sunday. It will certainly be raised when he meets with visiting French and Spanish foreign ministers Bernard Kouchner and Miguel Moratinos, also on Sunday.
PA officials expressed satisfaction with the Arab League decision.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the PA leadership, expressed hope that the 30-day period would give the US administration enough time to find a solution to the issue of settlement construction. He also expressed satisfaction with the Arab League’s endorsement of Abbas’s stance on the future of the peace talks.
The spokesman said that if the Americans failed to convince the government to extend the freeze, the league would meet in a month to decide on the future of the peace process.
A PA official in Ramallah said that the Arab League supported Abbas’s idea to seek US or UN recognition of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 lines if the talks collapsed. “The Palestinian leadership will give the US administration another chance to solve the [settlement construction] crisis,” he said. “If their efforts fail in the next 30 days, we will go to the Americans and the United Nations [regarding statehood].”
The Arab ministers called on Washington to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction to pursue efforts to create the appropriate conditions to revive the peace process.
The ministers, who were briefed by Abbas on the crisis surrounding the talks, also called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
They said that an agreement on this issue should be reached by September 2011.
Abbas hinted again that he might resign and dismantle the PA if the peace process did not move forward. He told the Arab ministers that he saw no point in the continued existence of the PA if the peace talks failed to achieve an independent state.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed the Arab League’s backing for giving more time for peace negotiations to take place.
“We appreciate the Arab League’s statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward,” Crowley said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end.”
The chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace talks, Saeb Erekat, sought to keep the pressure on Israel.
“The Israeli government was given the choice between peace and settlements, and it has chosen settlements,” Erekat said. “It [Israel] alone bears the responsibility for this.”
Delegates at Friday’s meeting said the ministers made their decision after Abbas explained that he faced stiff opposition in the Palestinian territories to returning to the talks. They also said some of Friday’s discussions centered on the need to delay a final decision until the US congressional elections so the Obama administration would not face as much political pressure.
Hamas dismissed the Arab foreign ministers’ decision as “a waste of time.”
A statement from the group’s Syrian-based leadership said the Palestinians should end all negotiations and return to armed resistance. Hamas also called for the Palestinians to focus on restoring unity, in reference to efforts to end its split with Fatah.
Syria opposed any attempt to go back to the talks.
“I cannot see any benefit from this meeting,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who stayed away from the Libya meeting and instead sent Syria’s envoy to the Arab League.
Lebanon boycotted the discussions altogether because of a dispute with Libya.
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.