Arab League backs indirect peace talks with Israel


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Arab nations gave the Palestinians the green light Saturday to enter indirect peace talks with Israel, likely opening the way for the start of long-stalled U.S.-brokered negotiations.

The decision, made by foreign ministers from several top Arab League member nations, comes after a first attempt to get indirect talks going collapsed in March when Israel announced a new Jewish housing project in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as a future capital. The Israeli decision drew fierce criticism from the United States and led to the worst rift in decades between Washington and its chief Mideast ally.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters that the Arab foreign ministers decided “that we should stick to the decision” to enter indirect talks with Israel via a U.S. mediator.

“We need the Arabs’ support and assistance,” Erekat said.

This is the second time Arab nations have endorsed indirect talks. The Arab League first did so in early March. Arab foreign ministers said Saturday they had reservations about backing the talks a second time, but said they were willing to do so for a preliminary four-month period despite what they see as a lack of commitment to peace from Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled that he would be willing to resume negotiations, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday the talks would start next week.

The talks will not be the face-to-face meetings the Obama administration had hoped to put in place more than a year after peace efforts broke down amid Israel’s military offensive on Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The Palestinians have refused to sit down at the same table with Israel until it agrees to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem — two areas that the Palestinians want for an independent state along with the Gaza Strip.

The indirect talks, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell shuttling between the two sides, were meant as a compromise.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi cautioned that the Palestinians would still be waiting to see stronger Israeli compromises on settlement construction.

“If it is to succeed then there are requirements that have to be fulfilled in order to give Mitchell’s shuttle diplomacy … some credibility and substance,” she said. “Of course we need to see on the ground that Israel has stopped settlement activities in Jerusalem, around Jerusalem and everywhere else.”