Israel rejects `preconditions` for direct peace talks
Israel, Palestine may soon be invited to relaunch direct peace talks.
Jerusalem: Israeli officials on Monday rejected any "preconditions" ahead of an expected international invitation to direct peace talks with the Palestinians that would call for a complete settlement freeze.
Their remarks came as Washington appeared to be closing in on the relaunch of direct negotiations after months of shuttle diplomacy that have thus far failed to convince the Palestinians to enter face-to-face talks.
"Israel is ready to start direct negotiations immediately, but without any preconditions," an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
"The Palestinians, who have lost valuable time by refusing to revive these direct contacts, will present all the topics they want to discuss at the negotiating table," he added.
The diplomatic Quartet -- comprised of diplomats from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- was expected to issue a statement inviting both sides to relaunch direct talks which were suspended in late 2008.
The Palestinians have said it will be modelled on a Quartet statement issued in Moscow in March that called on Israel to halt settlement construction and for the direct talks to lead to a final peace deal in two years.
They have resisted months of US pressure to relaunch the talks, arguing that Israel`s rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not serious about the creation of a Palestinian state on lands occupied by Israel in 1967.
The Palestinians met late Sunday with US envoy George Mitchell`s deputy David Hale to discuss a final draft of the statement, aimed at providing cover for President Mahmud Abbas to return the negotiating table.
"There has been progress up to this point," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said following the talks in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
"The official Palestinian position will be made public after the Quartet statement."
Israel has repeatedly called for direct talks but has refused to completely halt settlement activity, which it considers a "precondition," but which the Palestinians say was part of previous agreements.
The presence of some 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, has been one of the most contentious issues in the decades-old conflict.
Israeli media reported that a forum of seven top cabinet members have decided to reject the Quartet statement, which may call on Israel to extend a limited West Bank settlement freeze, set to expire in September, for another 10 months.
"The Quartet declaration should allow the Palestinians to descend the tree they have climbed by refusing negotiations, but it must not be binding on Israel," several Israeli media outlets quoted an unnamed minister as saying.
The minister was quoted as saying that Netanyahu`s government would reject the appeal from the Quartet but accept a parallel invitation issued by Washington that would be "more balanced”.
The Palestinians rejected the partial freeze as insufficient because it did not include mostly-Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed to its capital in a move not recognised by the international community.
The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
The United States has been struggling for the past 18 months to relaunch the peace process, viewing it as a key foreign policy goal that would help improve relations with the Muslim world.
The two sides began indirect US-brokered talks in May, after the last round of face-to-face talks collapsed when Israel launched a devastating three-week offensive in Gaza in December 2008 in a bid to halt rocket fire from the enclave ruled by the militant Hamas movement.
Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, has warned Abbas against holding any negotiations with Israel, including in a weekend statement co-signed by 10 other hardline groups based in Syria.