RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) – US President Barack Obama has invited Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas to Washington in May in a fresh bid to relaunch Middle East peace talks, a Palestinian official said Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile reiterated his desire to launch immediate direct talks with the Palestinians and said he expects to learn “in the next few days” whether negotiations would resume.
The invitation to Abbas was delivered by Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who met the Palestinian president in the occupied West Bank on Friday, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
“Mitchell invited president Abbas to visit the United States in May and he has responded positively to the invitation,” said Erakat, adding that the exact date of the talks has yet to be determined.
The two leaders were expected to discuss efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended in December 2008 after the start of Israel’s massive military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Washington has not yet officially announced the invitation to Abbas and a US official declined to comment on whether Netanyahu would also be invited.
The United States has been pressing the two sides to return to negotiations for months, but the Palestinians have refused to do so without a complete Israeli settlement freeze including in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu said after meeting with Mitchell Sunday that both Israel and the United States want an immediate resumption of talks.
“I only hope that the Palestinians also want an immediate start to the peace process,” he told reporters at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “We shall know in the next few days if the process is under way.”
Mitchell said in a statement after the meeting with Netanyahu that his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders were “positive and productive” and that he would return to the region next week.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz meanwhile reported that indirect “proximity” talks between the two sides would resume no later than mid-May, citing unnamed officials involved in the peace efforts.
The daily said Obama has informed Abbas that he did not succeed in convincing Netanyahu to freeze settlements in east Jerusalem but that the hawkish premier would refrain from taking “significant” actions there during the talks.
It also said the negotiations would encompass all the core issues of the decades-old conflict, including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and final borders.
The Palestinians, with backing from Arab states, reluctantly agreed to indirect US-brokered talks in March but the initiative collapsed days later when Israel announced the construction of 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem.
The planned settlement expansion infuriated the Palestinians and drew a harsh rebuke from Washington, in part because it came during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.
Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, and today views the entire city as its “eternal, undivided” capital.
The Palestinians have demanded mostly Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and view settlement construction in the occupied territories as a major threat to its viability.
The impasse over settlements has strained relations between Israel and its closest ally the United States, which had hoped to relaunch peace talks as part of a wider effort to engage the Muslim world.
Nearly a half million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem, territories that are home to nearly 2.5 million Palestinians.