Need direct talks with Palestinians: Netanyahu

Israel`s PM main goal of visit to the White House would be to have direct talks with Palestinians.

Updated: Jul 04, 2010, 20:49 PM IST

Jerusalem: Israel`s Prime Minister said Sunday that the main goal of his visit to the White House this week would be to move beyond American-mediated talks with the Palestinians to direct negotiations.

The US has been shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians since May, hoping to prod them to move to direct negotiations by the fall. The Palestinians so far have refused to engage with Israel directly, fearing they will have nothing to show for the effort.

Speaking to his Cabinet at the start of its weekly meeting Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there is "no alternative" to entering direct negotiations. "Whoever wants peace must hold direct talks for peace. I hope this will be one of the results of the visit to Washington," he said.

Netanyahu is to depart for Washington on Monday and to meet with President Barack Obama the following day.

Obama will try to accelerate the prospects of face-to-face peace talks when he meets Netanyahu, White House officials said Friday. While the Israeli prime minister has agreed to direct talks in principle, he has given little indication about what concessions he is prepared to make, and could come under pressure from Obama while in Washington to do so.

The Palestinians have sought an Israeli pledge to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. Israel has refused to freeze all construction, though it has slowed building in both areas.

The Palestinians also want talks to resume from where they broke off under Netanyahu`s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who offered sweeping concessions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that the indirect talks, brokered by White House envoy George Mitchell, have not yielded the kind of progress that would warrant switching to direct negotiations.

However, last week Washington characterized the discussions as substantive and said the gaps between the two sides have narrowed, but did not offer any details.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat put the onus on Netanyahu to pave the way for direct negotiations.

"If he wants direct talks, he knows he has the key — by stopping settlement activities and resuming negotiations where they left off in December 2008," Erekat said. "If he does this, we will go immediately to direct negotiations."

Erekat said the Palestinians have not heard any specific proposals from Netanyahu concerning security arrangements and the borders of a future Palestinian state. "Mitchell brought us nothing," he said.

Also Sunday, Israel`s Cabinet approved expanded powers for the committee investigating the deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in May.

The panel will have the authority to compel certain witnesses to testify, in order to examine the legality of the operation. But it still will not be able to question soldiers or examine the decision-making process that preceded the raid, in which nine pro-Palestinian activists from Turkey were killed.

Israel formed the committee after rejecting a call by UN chief Ban Ki-moon to hold an international inquiry. It says its naval commandos acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists on board one of the six ships. The activists have said they were attacked first.

Bureau Report