By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may agree to hold a brief meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in New York next week, a PA official in Ramallah said on Thursday.
The official stressed, however, that the meeting would not mean that the Palestinians have dropped their demand that Israel halt all construction in settlements before the resumption of peace talks.
Nor would it mean that the Palestinians have agreed to return to the negotiating table immediately, he said.
According to the official, Abbas is considering meeting with Netanyahu only because of the heavy pressure the Americans have been exerting on him in recent weeks.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat also hinted that Abbas might agree to meet Netanyahu on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly session.
Asked if Abbas was planning to meet with Netanyahu, Erekat said that "content" was more significant than meetings.
"Negotiations and meetings are only tools," he said. "The content is the essence."
Erekat said that the time has come to oblige Israel to fulfill its commitments toward the Middle East peace process, especially with regards to freezing construction and ending natural growth in settlements.
Erekat said that only then would the Palestinians agree to resume peace talks with Israel from the point where they were stopped under the previous government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Erekat said that the Palestinians reiterated their position during talks with US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, who visited Ramallah earlier this week for talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Thursday, Erekat met with the new US Consul-General in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubinstein, and told him that the Palestinians were determined not to return to the negotiating table with Israel because of the issue of settlements.
Erekat said that the Palestinian position should not be interpreted as a precondition for resuming the peace talks. "We are only demanding that Israel fulfill its obligations under the terms of the Road Map plan," he said.
"Israel's insistence on pursuing settlement activities and its refusal to negotiate about final-status issues such as Jerusalem and refugees have become the main reason responsible for obstructing US efforts to revive the peace process," Erekat charged.
"Israel's failure to fulfill its commitments means that it's not interested in the two-state solution or solving the final-status issues in accordance with United Nations resolutions."
Also on Thursday, Mitchell held talks in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak on ways of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The two-hour meeting was attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and General Intelligence Service head Omar Suleiman.
Following the meeting, Mitchell said in a statement: "We reiterated the shared commitment of the US and Egypt to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution."
He added that Washington was asking all parties - Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab states - to take responsibility for peace through concrete actions that will help create a positive context for re-launching the stalled negotiations.
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