Mitchell meets Barak; Biden en route for first trip to region as VP.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF, HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
The PLO Executive Committee is expected to weigh the resumption of negotiations with Israel through indirect talks, when it meets in Ramallah on Sunday.On Saturday night, US special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel for a two-day visit, amid hopes that after 15 months of deadlock, the peace process might finally be inching forward.He will be followed on Monday by US Vice President Joe Biden, who is making his first trip to the region since taking office in January 2009.“With the arrival of both the senator [Mitchell] and then the vice president we are hopeful that the diplomatic process will be entering high gear,” a source in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Jerusalem Post.Israel and the US would have preferred direct talks, such as those that were held under prime minister Ehud Olmert until late 2008.Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted he will not talk with Israel until it stops building in the settlements and in east Jerusalem, but the US and Israel are hoping he will agree to indirect talks brokered by Mitchell.On Wednesday, the Arab League in Cairo gave its backing to indirect talks for four months. Abbas is expected on Sunday to brief the PLO Executive Committee on the Cairo meeting before holding a debate on the matter, which will likely be followed by a vote. He has yet to publicly declare his position on the matter, but is expected to do so at the meeting.AdvertisementWith the anticipation that Abbas would move ahead, Mitchell has arrived to lay the groundwork for the indirect talks. He will meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday and with Abbas on Monday.Almost immediately upon landing, Mitchell went to the Tel Aviv home of Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a private meeting.Barak has said the resumption of talks would benefit Israel, the Palestinians and the region. However, neither Israel nor the US wants to set a time limit on the indirect negotiations that they hope will lead to direct talks.On Saturday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos expressed support for the resumption of talks.The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was in Cordova for a meeting of foreign ministers, said she wants to reinvigorate the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The group is to convene in Moscow on March 19.“I think there is a real opportunity for the EU to be stronger in linking with the other members of the Quartet and enabling us to push forward,” she said.Ashton plans to travel to the Middle East next Sunday and would like to visit Gaza during her trip. It will be her first visit since assuming her post in January.In Washington on Friday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tried to clarify the US position and addressed rumors that have circulated in the media.“There have been some reports out of the region regarding questions about written assurances or documents or guarantees to either party. Just to be clear, we’re trying to help the parties end this conflict. And what we have said to both parties is what we’ve said to them privately and publicly all year: Our goal is two states living side-by-side in peace and security. The only way to achieve that is good-faith negotiations between the parties. When those negotiations hit obstacles, we will work hard to overcome these obstacles.“As we have always done, if we believe either party is not living up to these commitments, we will say so,” Crowley said. He added that no “written assurances or documents or guarantees” had been given to the Israelis or the Palestinians.Last week, the Post reported that the indirect talks would not pick up where they left off in 2008.During his two days in Israel, Biden will deliver a keynote address at Tel Aviv University, the only major public speech anticipated during the trip. He is due to meet with President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. On Tuesday, he will talk with the prime minister.Other top ministers might participate in some of Biden’s meetings, such as Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He is, however, unlikely to meet separately with them, particularly as he held a lengthy meeting with Barak during the defense minister’s visit to Washington last month.He is expected to seek to reassure Israelis about the endurance of the US-Israel relationship across US administrations, following concerns much of the Israeli public has expressed about the Obama administration’s commitment to the Jewish state. His visit comes amid several rounds of American outreach to the Arab and Muslim publics, though the US position is that these efforts should not be mutually exclusive.Biden will be accompanied on his trip, much of whose itinerary has yetto be finalized, by Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren. In additionto meeting with American Jewish leaders ahead of his departure, Bidenhosted Oren for around an hour at the White House to coordinate thetrip.After leaving Israel Biden will visit Jordan and Egypt before before heading back to the US on Saturday night.AP contributed to this report.
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