Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:12 am (KSA) 21:12 pm (GMT)

Israel ready to start direct talks within days: PM

AL Chief Moussa (R) speaks with President Abbas (C) and Egypt's FM Abul Gheit (L) before the Cairo meeting
AL Chief Moussa (R) speaks with President Abbas (C) and Egypt's FM Abul Gheit (L) before the Cairo meeting

Israel's prime minister said on Thursday he is ready to start direct Middle East talks within days after Arab officials agreed to such negotiations but left the timing up to the Palestinians.

"In response to the Arab League decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he is ready to start, already in the next few days, direct and frank talks with the Palestinian Authority," his office said.

"The prime minister added that through direct negotiations it is possible to reach a peace agreement between the two nations in the near future."

He spoke after Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister earlier said that the Arab officials agreed to the holding of direct Middle East peace negotiations and left it up to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to decide when to start talks with Israel.

Internayional pressure

 There must be written guarantees ... and the negotiations should be serious and final status talks 
Arab League Chief Amr Moussa

Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, who chaired a meeting of foreign ministers and representatives, spoke in response to a question about whether they had given Abbas a green light to start talks.

"I'll be clear. There is an agreement but with the understanding of what will be discussed and how the direct negotiations will be conducted. And we will leave the assessment of the position to the Palestinian president as to when the conditions allow the beginning of such negotiations," he said.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa said at the press conference that written guarantees were required for direct talks.

There "must be written guarantees ... and the negotiations should be serious and final status talks," he said.

The United States said it was "encouraged" by signs of Arab support for the resumption of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

"We're encouraged by what we've heard today coming out of Cairo," State Department Philip Crowley spokesman told reporters, adding that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is hopeful the negotiations resume soon.

The U.S. and the Europeans have been pushing Abbas to restart the direct talks, which broke off in 2008, immediately.

Abbas, however, has said he would only restart talks if Israel agrees to a halt in settlement construction and accepts a Palestinian state in territories seized in the 1967 Middle East war - the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

Israel annexed the Arab half of the city after capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is willing to meet with Abbas to discuss all the core issues of the decades-old conflict and accused the Palestinians of dodging direct talks.

"Impossible" conditions

On Wednesday the Israeli leader's deputy, Silvan Shalom, said Abbas was setting conditions that were "impossible" to accept.

As Abbas has dug in his heels, the Palestinians have come under mounting external pressure to enter direct talks, including from the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the weekend by telephone with Netanyahu as well as her counterparts from Jordan and Qatar, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Tuesday.

"We have a full-court press under way to see if we can move to direct negotiations," Crowley said. "We're hopeful that the parties will reach this point but I can't pinpoint a particular day on the calendar."

Netanyahu and Abbas met separately with Jordan's King Abdullah II this week, and both have received a string of phone calls from European leaders urging direct negotiations.

Abbas has meanwhile faced internal pressure to hold off on direct talks from his own secular Fatah movement and their bitter rivals in the Islamist Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Earlier this month Fatah said there was a "lack of credibility and confidence" in the indirect talks that could undermine direct negotiations.

And on Tuesday senior Hamas leader Salah al-Bardawil warned a return to direct talks would "only serve the Zionist occupation."

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