US envoy arrives for Israeli-Palestinian talks

Jerusalem–US President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace envoy arrived in Tel Aviv Monday for expected indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks but Israel voiced doubt about any breakthrough without direct negotiations.

Hours before envoy George Mitchell flew into Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak conferred in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh about the upcoming US-mediated negotiations. Obama’s peace efforts received a boost Saturday when Arab states approved four months of “proximity talks,” whose expected start in March was delayed by Israel’s announcement of a settlement project on occupied land near Jerusalem.

Israeli Defense Ministry strategist Amos Gilad said on Israel Radio the indirect negotiations would begin Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear when the envoy would hold talks with the Palestinian side. The executive committee of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to meet only Saturday to give the formal nod to start the negotiations.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor described indirect talks as “a strange affair” after face-to-face peace negotiations stretching back 16 years.

There have been no direct talks for the past 18 months, a period that has included Israel’s Gaza war, election of a right-wing Israeli government and entrenched rule in the Gaza Strip by Hamas Islamists opposed to the US peace efforts.

“I think it is clear to everyone that real talks are direct talks, and I don’t think there is a chance of a significant breakthrough until the direct talks begin,” Meridor said.

“The talks will be held. The envoy, Mitchell, will talk to us, to them. But the more we hasten to arrive at direct talks, the more we will be able to address the heart of the matter.”

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Abbas, said the negotiations would show whether the Israeli government was serious about peace and “test the sincerity” of the Obama administration in pursuing Palestinian statehood.

“The truth is we are not in need of negotiations. We are in need of decisions by the Israeli government. This is the time for decisions more than it is the time for negotiations,” Abu Rdainah said.

In an interview published Sunday in the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, Abbas said Obama had given a commitment he would not allow “any provocative measures” by either side.

Abbas has long insisted Israel freeze Jewish settlement building before any negotiations resume, and he had rejected a temporary construction moratorium that Netanyahu ordered in the occupied West Bank last November as insufficient.

Netanyahu, who heads a pro-settler government, has pledged not to curb Israeli home construction in East Jerusalem.

But after angering Washington by announcing a 1600-home project–during a visit in March by Vice President Joe Biden–Israel has not approved new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, in what some Israeli politicians called a de facto freeze.

Israel captured East Jerusalem along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a 1967 war, and considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they intend to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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