Arabs agree to Israel-Palestinian talks

 Arab officials agreed in principle on Thursday to the holding of direct Middle East peace negotiations and left it up to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to decide when to start talks with Israel.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been under pressure from Washington to move forward, and the announcement prompted Netanyahu to express openness to starting talks "in the next few days."

The United States said it was encouraged by the news from Cairo, while Abbas's rivals Hamas rejected it and his own aides stood firm on his demands.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) speaks with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani during a meeting for the Arab Peace Initiative committee in Cairo.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) speaks with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani during a meeting for the Arab Peace Initiative committee in Cairo.

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani made the announcement after chairing the meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo.

He 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.

The meeting drafted a letter to US President Barack Obama which laid out the "general principles" of peace talks.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa said "written guarantees" were required for direct talks.

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

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the letter included demands that Israel first halt settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and agree to its 1967 frontiers as the starting point of the discussion of final borders.

"The Arabs demanded in their letter to Obama that the reference point of the Palestinian state be the 1967 borders, with agreed-upon exchanges of land and a halt to settlements," he said.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, annexing the latter in a move not recognised by the international community. It views the entire city as its "eternal, undivided" capital.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said "the Palestinian position has Arab and international support, and we want there to be an Israeli response that allows for the creation of a suitable climate to go to direct negotiations."

In Jerusalem, a statement from Netanyahu's office said: "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 that with the Palestinian Authority."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said "we're encouraged by what we've heard today coming out of Cairo."

But the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, slammed the position of Arab ministers, saying it "rejects any Arab call to resume negotiations with the occupation and considers it a grave political error."

Abbas has conditioned the talks on an Israel guarantee for Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders between the Jewish state and east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

He also wants an end to settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel acceded to US pressure to limit settlement building in the West Bank until September, when a moratorium ends.

The Palestinian leader repeated his conditions on the eve of the meeting in an interview with Egyptian newspaper editors, the official Egyptian MENA news agency reported on Thursday.

Abbas said he would tell the meeting that if there was "no serious vision relating to the 1967 borders and an end to settlements then I cannot enter direct negotiations," adding he would immediately enter negotiations if his demands were guaranteed.

He complained about "pressures I have never faced before in my life" from Washington and the European Union.

Abbas suspended direct negotiations with Israel after its offensive on the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in December 2008 in response to rocket fire.

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