- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 2, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday welcomed Arab nations’ endorsement of indirect, U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, saying he is ready to restart negotiations “at any time and at any place.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials said they expect the talks to begin by early next week, and one Israeli official said the dialogue would go beyond formalities and include preliminary discussions on “core issues” in the decades-long conflict.

Details on the exact timing and scope of the talks were still being finalized Sunday, a day after the 22-member Arab League gave the Palestinians the green light for negotiations.

Despite the signs of progress, violence broke out in the West Bank during a Palestinian protest against the separation barrier Israel is building in the area. Palestinian medics said four protesters were shot by rubber bullets fired by Israeli forces in Beit Jalla, a village just outside Jerusalem.

The Israeli army said it had used “nonlethal” methods such as tear gas to disperse what it called a riot by protesters who threw rocks at forces protecting a construction zone. It said no rubber bullets were fired.

The violence is not expected to derail the latest U.S. peace initiative. U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to return to the region at the end of the week, and the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, plans to announce the formal resumption of talks on Saturday.

Mr. Netanyahu said he is willing to restart negotiations “at any time and at any place” while insisting they begin “without preconditions.”

The last round of peace talks broke down in late 2008, reportedly when the sides were close to an agreement. Mr. Netanyahu’s more dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was in office at the time.

The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Mr. Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze all Jewish housing construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas they want for an independent state along with the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu has imposed a 10-month slowdown in the West Bank but has refused to include east Jerusalem in the order. The indirect talks, with Mr. Mitchell shuttling between the two sides, are seen as a compromise.

Indirect talks were set to begin in March when, during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Israel announced plans to build new Jewish housing units in an east Jerusalem neighborhood. The decision drew fierce criticism from the United States and led to the worst rift between the two allies in decades.

The Arab League’s endorsement gives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas critical backing to sell the indirect talks to a skeptical Palestinian public.

An Israeli government official said he hoped the talks would lead to direct peace negotiations that ultimately touch on all the contested issues between the parties, such as final borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

“Israel believes that the core issues to the conflict can only be resolved in the framework of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “Having said that, we have agreed that in the framework of the proximity talks there can be preliminary discussions on the core issues.”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the future talks.

In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Ayam, Mr. Abbas said President Obama assured him that the Americans were “committed not to allow any provocative measures from any party” — an apparent reference to Israeli construction in east Jerusalem. Municipal officials in the city claim Mr. Netanyahu already has unofficially frozen Jewish housing construction in east Jerusalem, despite his public claims to the contrary.

Mr. Abbas said that, despite the obstacles ahead, he remained hopeful.

“Sometimes I feel that in Israel there are those who don’t want peace, but we have to try until the last minute,” he said. “There is an effort being exerted, and we shouldn’t lose patience.”

Mr. Abbas’ rivals in the militant Islamic Hamas movement, which seized control of Gaza from Mr. Abbas’ forces nearly three years ago, rejected the Arab League endorsement.

Hamas said the decision “provides a new cover for Israel to commit more crimes and violations against the Palestinian people.”


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