Israeli prime minister wants regular meetings with Palestinians

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas every two weeks once direct peace talks resume next week, Israeli officials said Saturday.

Netanyahu will propose the biweekly meetings with the Palestinian leader when the U.S.-brokered negotiations formally resume on Thursday in Washington after a nearly two-year break, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The Israeli leader’s proposal appears to indicate that he is serious about the talks and won’t allow them to fizzle out after next week’s meeting in the U.S.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hadn’t heard about the proposal but would be open to the idea. “We are not against this in principle, it’s just premature to talk about this now,” Erekat told The Associated Press.

The last round of Mideast peace talks broke down in late 2008 after Israel launched a three-week military offensive against Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip to stop near-daily rocket attacks on southern Israel. Officials close to the talks said at the time that the sides were close to an agreement.

During those negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders met on a regular basis.

The resumption of talks comes after months of diplomatic efforts by Washington to coax the sides back to the negotiating table. U.S. special envoy George Mitchell shuttled back and forth between the sides for the past few months, urging them to agree to resume negotiations.

Netanyahu has been calling for direct talks to resume without preconditions soon after he took office last year.

The Palestinians, however, have been reluctant to return to the negotiating table, fearing that they will be blamed if the talks collapse. That has left them hesitant to commit to new negotiations without Israel first agreeing to preconditions, such was a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

A 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction will expire at the end of September, and the government is divided over whether to extend it. Netanyahu ordered the building freeze in an effort to get talks with the Palestinians back on track.

The Palestinians have already announced they will withdraw from peace talks if building is renewed.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war and began building settlements there soon after.

There are more than 100 of them in the West Bank today, territory the Palestinians envision for their future state along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The international community at large does not recognize the settlements as legally part of Israel.

The fate of east Jerusalem, meanwhile, lies at the heart of the settlement dispute. Israel considers all of Jerusalem its eternal capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

The Palestinian Authority is split between the Western-backed Fatah party in the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas that has controlled Gaza since it ousted Fatah in street battles in 2007.

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