CAIRO, (Reuters) – The Arab League on Wednesday agreed to a U.S. proposal for indirect Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Palestinian officials said, giving a boost to Washington’s efforts to revive the moribund peace process.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had said he would adhere to the decision of the Arab League committee that met in Cairo.
Israel welcomed the move. “Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu has been calling for the resumption of talks for some time and we hope now that the talks can move forward,” said spokesman Mark Regev.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Arab officials were not “convinced by Israeli intentions”, but “they decided to give an opportunity of four months to the American proposal.”
“If the indirect negotiations fail after four months, they will hold a meeting this coming July to assess the developments,” he said.
The indirect negotiations, or so-called proximity talks, would likely involve shuttle diplomacy by a U.S. mediator between Jerusalem and the nearby Palestinian town of Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials have played down the significance of possible indirect talks, arguing that U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell’s shuttle diplomacy over the past year has already been a form of that.
The United States has been trying for a year to get the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.
Abbas has resisted U.S. and Israeli calls for a resumption of direct negotiations, saying Israel must first halt all Jewish settlement building on occupied lands where the Palestinians aim to establish a state.
Syria’s Arab League ambassador, Yousef al-Ahmed, said the Arab League move appeared simply to give “political cover” for a Palestinian decision that had already been taken.
Abbas broke off negotiations with Israel in protest at its offensive in the Gaza Strip launched in December 2008.
Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu announced in November a temporary, limited freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank, but excluded East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians aim to locate their capital.
Abbas, who heads the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has been critical of Washington’s role as a mediator in recent months, saying President Barack Obama had not done enough for Middle East peace.
Abbas has also said Israel’s right-wing government is not interested in making peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has publicly outlined his vision of a Palestinian state with limited powers of sovereignty.
Palestinian officials have cited recent Israeli measures, including a plan to include West Bank religious sites in a Jewish heritage project and plans for more East Jerusalem homes, as evidence that Netanyahu is not sincere about peacemaking.
Announcement of the heritage plan last week has increased tension in the West Bank. It touched off violent protests and triggered calls for a new Palestinian uprising from the Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip and are hostile to Israel.
Netanyahu has said the plan to renovate holy sites, including two in the West Bank revered by Muslims and Jews, would not impinge on Muslim freedom of worship.
Overnight, Israeli forces raided a Palestinian village near Jenin in the northern West Bank, wounding two members of the Islamic Jihad group, a Palestinian security officer said.
Islamic Jihad said in a statement that the two men, leaders wanted by Israel for eight years, had fought gun battles through the night with the Israeli forces. They had been wounded and detained, it said.