Erakat Says Indirect Talks With Israel ‘Have Started’

U.S.-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority “have started,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat said, ending a breakdown that lasted almost a year and a half.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will act as a chief negotiator and all core issues, such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees will be on the table during the four months of indirect negotiations, Erakat said in remarks published today by the official Wafa news agency. His comments followed a second meeting between Abbas and U.S. envoy George Mitchell in as many days. Mitchell was expected to return to Washington later today.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed yesterday’s decision by the Palestinians to resume talks, saying he hoped they would lead to direct negotiations. “In the long term, it is impossible to arrive at decisions and agreements on critical issues, such as security and national interests, without sitting together in the same room,” he said at today’s Cabinet meeting.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled in December 2008 after Israel sent forces into the Gaza Strip in an operation the government said aimed to stop cross-border rocket attacks. Abbas had linked participation in the talks to Israel’s 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 a future state.

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 may be raised in the talks for preliminary discussion, on the understanding that any solutions would be found in direct talks.

Netanyahu adviser Yitzhak Molcho will be sitting with Mitchell during the indirect talks, the official added.

“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.

Talks Stalled

U.S. efforts to initiate indirect discussions stalled in 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 and Palestinian officials said they were reconsidering their participation in the talks.

Netanyahu, while publicly saying 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.

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