Israel’s PM welcomes progress toward peace talks

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s prime minister yesterday welcomed the Arab nations’ endorsement of indirect, US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister still awaited a formal Palestinian statement on the resumption of peace talks, but renewed his willingness to restart them "at any time and at any place" while insisting they begin "without preconditions."

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, was expected to meet Saturday to officially announce a resumption of the talks.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the talks were to start soon, and US Mideast envoy George Mitchell was expected back in the region later this week.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late 2008, reportedly while on the verge of an agreement.

The Palestinians have since refused to sit down with Israel until it agrees to freeze all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - two areas that the Palestinians want for an independent state along with the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu has imposed a 10-month slowdown in settlement building that the Palestinians have rejected as insufficient.

The indirect talks, with Mitchell shuttling between the two sides, are seen as a compromise.

A first attempt to get indirect talks going collapsed in March when Israel announced plans for building new Jewish housing units in an east Jerusalem neighborhood. The decision drew fierce criticism from the United States and led to the worst rift between the two allies in decades.

The Arab League’s endorsement of the talks on Saturday sticks to a four-month window voted on in March, officially leaving the U.S. only two months to make headway in the shuttle negotiations.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Arab League will review this decision in July, two months after the start of the proximity talks, with the possibility of extending talks another two months.

An Israeli government official said he hoped the talks would lead to direct peace negotiations that ultimately touch on all the contested issues between the parties - such as final borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

"Israel believes that the core issues to the conflict can only be resolved in the framework of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," he said. "Having said that, we have agreed that in the framework of the proximity talks there can be preliminary discussions on the core issues. We see the proximity talks as a corridor into the direct talks."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the future talks.

Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed optimism about the developments.

"It looks like we are very close to begin the proximity talks," he said before meeting visiting Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen. "It took a little longer than we hoped for and problems are not yet solved but at least the way to handle them is open."

Erekat insisted that talks were still pending on a final decision this Saturday, but said the outline was clear.

"We have agreed that the final status negotiations will last 24 months and we hope that in the four months of proximity talks we can achieve results that enable us to go for direct talks," he said. "Israel needs to choose between peace and settlements."

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