JERUSALAM,(AFP) – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that a return to indirect talks could boost peace prospects, as Washington’s Middle East envoy headed to the region to salvage the battered negotiations.
“The US has understood after a year and half that we were in a pointless discussion about the marginal issue of building in settlements,” the Israeli premier told delegates at a business conference in Tel Aviv.
“The US has understood that what is important is to reach the real issues, including the core issues at the heart of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” he said.
Last week, Washington acknowledged it had failed to secure a new Israeli settlement freeze, effectively signalling the end of direct peace talks and a return to the “proximity” talks that kicked off in May and were overseen by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Mitchell, who was last in the region in October, was to arrive in Israel later on Monday for an evening meeting with Netanyahu. On Tuesday, he will hold talks in the West Bank with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
A previous 10-month freeze expired at the end of September, just weeks after Israel and the Palestinians embarked on direct peace talks.
Since then the two sides have not met up, with Abbas refusing to talk while Israel continues to build on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
Ahead of his meeting with Mitchell, Abbas was holding talks with the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Ramallah.
And after talking to Mitchell, he will travel to Cairo to discuss the latest developments with Arab League diplomats.
Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called on the European Union to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in a letter delivered to EU foreign ministers who are currently meeting in Brussels.
Such a step, he said, would “provide protection for the principle of two states as well as for the peace process.”
Over the past few weeks, Palestinian officials have been talking up their options if peace talks with Israel totally collapse — one of which is seeking recognition for a unilateral declaration of statehood on the basis of the 1967 borders, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and occupied east Jerusalem.
During his visit, Mitchell was to ask both sides to outline their ideas for an eventual peace deal, opposition leader Tzipi Livni told public radio.
“The US is today going to ask both sides to hear their positions,” she said from Washington, where she held talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I have no doubts the Palestinians will be asked to put their positions on the table. Then we will see any difference between what they say in public and what they say in private,” she said.
However, the Israeli daily Haaretz said most of the pressure would be on Israel.
“The brunt of the work will be in Israel because the Palestinians have already submitted their opening positions on all the core issues — borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, water and the settlements,” the paper said.
In a speech on Friday, Clinton pledged that Washington would remain engaged, and she encouraged the two sides to address core issues through indirect talks.
Clinton’s speech came after weeks of fruitless efforts to convince Israel to impose a second freeze on West Bank settlement activity.
Washington offered Israel a package of incentives in exchange for a new three-month ban, but failed to win an additional moratorium.
The US is now pushing a return to shuttle diplomacy.
Netanyahu said he hoped these indirect talks would eventually lead to a breakthrough.
“When these gaps narrow, we will reach direct negotiations, with the aim of reaching a framework agreement for peace,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians have expressed doubt that a new round of shuttle diplomacy would achieve anything.
“The United States has once again proposed indirect talks with Israel, which means they don’t have anything to present,” Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Estayeh told AFP on Sunday.