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Abbas Agrees to Indirect Talks Following PLO Approval

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to U.S.-mediated indirect talks with Israel after receiving Palestine Liberation Organization approval that cleared the way for the first negotiations in 17 months.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Abbas told U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell of his decision in a meeting yesterday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The indirect negotiations, also called “proximity” talks, will last for four months and focus on border and security issues that would include the issue of a disputed area of Jerusalem, he said.

“It’s time now to take decisions and implement them on the ground,” Erakat told journalists after the meeting.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled in December 2008 at the start of an Israeli military initiative in the Gaza Strip the government said was intended to stop cross-border rocket attacks. Abbas had linked his participation in the U.S.-proposed indirect talks to the Israeli government agreeing to freeze plans to build new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and sought by the Palestinians as the capital of their state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “welcomes the resumption of peace talks,” a statement relayed by his spokesman Nir Hefez said. Netanyahu stressed that the negotiations should be exempt from any preconditions and lead quickly to direct talks.

Core Issues

An Israeli official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to give details of the negotiations, said Israel had agreed core issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees could be raised in the talks for preliminary discussion, on the understanding that any solutions would be found in direct talks.

“In a certain sense, proximity talks are mainly theater,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “Certainly nobody expects proximity talks to lead to anything substantial.”

Opposition and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who was a chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the previous government, called the indirect talks a test of Netanyahu’s readiness to make decisions for peace.

“I hope these talks will have content, that they will be true talks, and I hope we will not miss this opportunity,” Livni said today in an e-mailed statement.

New Homes

U.S. efforts to initiate the indirect discussions stalled last March when Israel approved a plan to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. U.S. officials criticized the plans, which led the Palestinians to reconsider their participation in the talks.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber al-Thani said on May 1 that Arab ministers received “positive indicators from the U.S. mediator” before agreeing that the Palestinians should restart talks.

“U.S. guarantees, which were offered to the Palestinian leadership, were the reason behind today’s acceptance to join the talks,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee that approved the talks yesterday, told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Netanyahu, while publicly insisting construction in Jerusalem will continue, may have slowed projects in disputed areas of the city.

The planning committee responsible for approving construction in Jerusalem, which gave the go-ahead for the building plans in March, met last week for the first time since Biden’s visit. No building plans related to east Jerusalem were on the agenda, committee member and Jerusalem Councilman Yair Gabbay said in a phone interview last week.

The U.S. will announce the starting day for the negotiations and describe what guarantees were offered the Palestinians, Erakat said.

Abbas is expected to meet with Mitchell again today to discuss the mechanism for holding the indirect talks, the statement from his office said.

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