RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) – The Palestinians agreed on Sunday to give indirect peace talks with Israel a chance after months of US-led efforts to lure both sides back to the negotiating table.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, announced the Palestinians would embark on US-mediated talks but expressed deep scepticism over the prospects of success.
“The Palestinian leadership has decided to give an opportunity for the American suggestion to hold indirect talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides,” Abed Rabbo told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
But he went on to cite a list of Israeli “violations” of previous agreements, led by the continuing expansion of settlements that he said would make direct negotiations impossible and could scupper the indirect talks.
The decision, taken at a PLO executive committee meeting in Ramallah, came as US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was meeting with Israeli leaders on his latest trip to the region.
Mitchell met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over two hours Sunday afternoon, in what a statement from Netanyahu’s office characterised as “a good conversation.”
The statement said the two would meet again on Monday, before Mitchell goes to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian leadership.
US Vice President Joe Biden is also expected this week.
The Palestinians’ approval was expected after Arab foreign ministers last week expressed grudging support for the talks, following months of shuttle diplomacy by Mitchell.
Abed Rabbo, the PLO secretary general, said the indirect talks would be limited to four months as proposed by the Arab ministers and should focus first on final borders.
“The Arab position was clear. If there is no real progress within four months, there are different options, including going directly to the UN Security Council,” he said.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which opposes any talks with Israel and rules Gaza, is not a member of the PLO, an umbrella group that includes president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party and several smaller factions.
Palestinian officials had expressed doubts about the talks ahead of the PLO meeting but said they did not want to be seen as hindering US-led efforts to revive peace talks suspended during the December 2008-January 2009 Gaza war.
“We think it’s unlikely that these indirect negotiations with the Netanyahu government will succeed,” senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said.
“But we want to give an opportunity to the US administration to continue its efforts,” Ahmad told AFP.
Netanyahu has repeatedly called for direct talks with the Palestinians but has refused to completely freeze settlement growth.
In November, Netanyahu imposed a 10-month halt to building starts in the West Bank but the Palestinians said the move was insufficient because it excluded east Jerusalem, public buildings and existing projects.
Israel seized mostly Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community or the Palestinians, who view it as the capital of their future state.
On Sunday, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper cited a government memo as saying the Jewish state expected little pressure from the Obama administration ahead of US congressional elections in November.
“In our assessment, the administration will focus in the coming year on domestic issues that are expected to determine the results of the congressional elections,” it said, quoting an internal foreign ministry memo.
“As such, and due to the difficulties to date in achieving significant gains in the peace process, we can assume that the administration’s focus on this issue will be limited.”