Palestinians agree to new peace talks with Israel
The PLO approves indirect talks with Israel, clearing way for the first negotiations in 18 months.
Ramallah, West Bank: The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Saturday approved indirect talks with Israel, clearing the way for the first negotiations in 18 months and giving a boost to U.S. peace diplomacy.
The PLO executive committee, meeting in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, approved the so-called "proximity" talks, whose launch may be announced later on Saturday and will be mediated by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
The Arab League last week approved four months of indirect negotiations.
"As far as we are concerned, the start of the indirect negotiations can be announced today," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO committee and veteran peace negotiator, after the several-hour session had ended.
"The negotiations will take one form: shuttling between President Abu Mazen and the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu," Abed Rabbo added, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The United States has sought to revive the peace process, calling the Middle East conflict a "vital national security interest." However many doubt whether the latest U.S. effort can succeed where years of diplomacy have failed.
A U.S. official said last week he expected the indirect talks to move forward before Mitchell`s departure from the region on Sunday. Mitchell is set to meet with Abbas later on Saturday at which time the talks may be announced.
The United States proposed the indirect talks as a way to break an impasse over Jewish settlement construction on Israeli-occupied land where the Palestinians aim to establish a state alongside Israel.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have not been held for 18 months.
Netanyahu has already indicated his agreement to an indirect talks format though Israel has also said it would prefer to conduct the negotiations directly. A spokesman for Netanyahu had no immediate comment on the PLO`s decision.
Abbas had refused any more negotiations with Israel until it fully halted settlement construction in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank, part of the territories where the Palestinians aim to found their state.
Netanyahu announced in November a partial freeze in West Bank building, but ruled out any halt to East Jerusalem construction, part of what Israel regards as its capital. However, Abbas says he has U.S. assurances Israel will not carry out any "provocative measures" during the negotiations, taking that to mean that it will hold off commencing new building work in East Jerusalem or announcing new tenders there.
Israeli officials have denied agreeing to any freeze in Jerusalem building.