Mitchell to broker indirect talks

US pleased, but Abbas skeptical, says Beitar Illit buildings show Israel not serious.

mitchell erekat shake hands 311 (photo credit: AP)
mitchell erekat shake hands 311
(photo credit: AP)
The United States said Monday that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to indirect peace talks brokered by its special Mideast envoy George Mitchell.
In a statement released as US Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Israel, Mitchell, who is also in the region, said he was pleased that the two sides had accepted the proposal for talks that will see him shuttle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next several weeks.
"We've begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions," Mitchell said. "As we've said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible."
The announcement followed disclosure of Israel's authorization to construct 112 new apartments in the West Bank despite a pledge to slow down settlement building. That move enraged the Palestinians just a day after they said they would resume the peace talks.
Mitchell appealed to the two sides not to do anything that could jeopardize the talks.
"We also again encourage the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks," the US envoy said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, voiced skepticism Monday regarding the prospects of the US-sponsored indirect talks with Israel that are scheduled to begin soon.
Abbas told Mitchell during a meeting in Ramallah that Israel's latest decision to build 112 housing units in Beitar Illit showed that the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians, said Chief PA Negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"The president told Mitchell that if every visit by the US envoy would be accompanied by more settlement construction, unilateral measures, creating facts on the ground and the continuation of assassinations, detentions and closures of Palestinian lands, then this raises a question mark over all our efforts," Erekat said after the meeting.
Erekat said that Abbas was particularly concerned about the decision to build new homes in Beitar Illit "despite the big deception called settlement freeze." He said the decision was at the top of the agenda of the Abbas-Mitchell talks.
Erekat nevertheless described the talks as "good and constructive," adding that the Palestinians were waiting for further clarifications on the US proposal to hold "proximity" talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The PA official said that Abbas received a letter from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week in which she promised that Washington would play an "active and productive" role in the upcoming negotiations.
Mitchell's talks in Ramallah came less than 24 hours after the PLO Executive Committee gave Abbas a green light to resume indirect negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the US Administration.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Abbas aide revealed that the Palestinians have made it clear that if the two sides failed to produce agreement  over the borders of the future Palestinian state after four months of the indirect negotiations, there would be no point in pursuing the talks.
"When we talk about the borders, we are referring to those in the WestBank, including East Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and theGaza Strip," he said, adding that the Palestinians were also seekingterritorial continuity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Abdel Rahim said that once Mitchell manages to reach agreement on theborders, the two parties would then launch talks on final-status issuessuch as refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water, security, land andprisoners held in Israeli jails.
He said that the US Administration has informed the PA that the goal ofthe talks was to "end the occupation that began in 1967 and theestablishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state that wouldlive in peace and security alongside Israel."