PA mulling US plan for low-level talks

Abbas looking at Mitchell's proposal for ministers to meet; Barak predicts negotiations within months.

Abbas angry 248.88 CHECK CAPTION (photo credit: AP)
Abbas angry 248.88 CHECK CAPTION
(photo credit: AP)

The Palestinian Authority said on Monday it wasstudying "new ideas" presented by US Mideast envoy George Mitchell,including the possibility of launching negotiations at a lowerministerial level, and not in direct talks between the two leaders.

However, the PA warned that the new ideas were not sufficient to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu termed these new ideas"interesting" during Sunday's cabinet meeting, and implied that if thePalestinians accepted them, they could lead into negotiations.

While Netanyahu was tight-lipped regarding the nature of thenew ideas, Reuters on Monday quoted a Palestinian official as sayingthey included starting the talks at a level below full-scalenegotiations between the leaders.

Reuters also quoted Palestinian officials as sayingMitchell proposed confidence-building measures that would includeexpanding Area A in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have bothcivil and security control; the removal of additional roadblocks; andthe release of a number of Palestinian prisoners. According toMitchell's new proposals, these ideas would be discussed by seniorministers, not by Abbas and Netanyahu themselves.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office would not confirm thatthis was what was being discussed. However, both Netanyahu and ForeignMinister Avigdor Lieberman have said in recent weeks that Israel wouldnot make any more gestures to the PA to bring them to talks.

Netanyahu,at a press conference with the foreign press last week, said that eachtime Israel or the international community brought the Palestinians aladder to get them off the high tree they have climbed, they just climbhigher.

A senior PA official told AFP that Abbas made it clear duringthe talks with the US envoy that he would not resume the peacenegotiations unless Israel halted all settlement construction not onlyin the West Bank, but in east Jerusalem as well.

The official added that the new ideas also call for Israel tostop its "incursions" into Palestinian territories and to transfer taxrevenues to the PA on a regular basis.

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said it was"premature" to talk about the resumption of the peace process. He saidthat the US was planning to pursue its efforts to achieve abreakthrough.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, sounded a bit moreoptimistic, predicting at the Labor party's faction meeting on Mondaythat talks would resume in the next month or two.

"On the surface the diplomatic process appears asleep andfrozen, but I don't think that's really accurate," he said. "Under thesurface, both sides want negotiations."

"In the next month or two I think negotiations will restart," he said.

Barak added that while the peace process was not proceeding at the hoped-for pace, "things are definitely happening."

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.