Last update - 03:34 05/01/2010
Israel believes Abbas on the verge of agreeing to peace talks
By Barak Ravid, Avi Issacharoff, Mazal Mualem and Natasha Mozgovaya
Tags: Israel news
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed cautious optimism Monday that talks with the Palestinians will soon resume.
"In recent weeks, I've had the impression there is a certain change in atmosphere, and I hope that a maturation that would enable the negotiating process to move forward has occurred," he told a meeting of his Likud faction at the Knesset.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Netanyahu was particularly encouraged by Monday's meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
For weeks, Abbas has been insisting that he will not resume negotiations unless Israel completely freezes construction in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. But at Monday's meeting, Abbas repeatedly said that he would postpone any decision on whether or not to restart the talks until he sees what happens during next week's visit to Washington by two senior Egyptian officials, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Israeli officials now believe that Abbas will agree to resume the talks after that visit, or else after U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell's visit a few days later. However, they predicted, he will first try to wrest as many guarantees as possible from the American administration.
Nevertheless, in an interview with the Palestinians News Agency after his meeting with Mubarak, Abbas reiterated that his view on the need for a complete settlement freeze has not changed.
"The minute there is a complete freeze on the settlements and recognition of the international community's decisions, we will return to the negotiating table without reservations," he said.
A senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team also told Haaretz on Monday that Abbas' demand for a freeze on construction in East Jerusalem has not changed.
Abbas enjoys considerable support for this precondition in the Arab world: The Arab League is backing him on it, and though Egypt has been pressing him to resume negotiations, Saudi Arabia has pointedly refused to join the Egyptian effort.
Abbas insisted that he was not seeking any American guarantees beyond this. "We don't want guarantees; we want a clear, well-prepared basis for negotiations," he said.
But in practice, Palestinian sources said, he apparently plans to insist that this "basis" include a guarantee that talks will resume at the point at which they left off under Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
According to Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, the Abbas-Mubarak meeting focused on an Egyptian proposal for reviving the talks that includes a promise of a Palestinian state within two years and American letters of assurance to both Israel and the PA about the nature of the final-status agreement.
Prior to the meeting, Zaki stressed that at the moment, these are ideas only. "Everyone is thinking about the best way to restart the talks," he told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. "If these ideas are realized, everyone will welcome it."
Netanyahu, at his meeting with Likud MKs, also stressed that the current flurry of diplomatic activity is focused solely on ideas for reviving the talks. Commenting on reports in the press about various concessions he has allegedly agreed to make on final-status issues, he said, "The peace plans that are being ascribed to me in the media are untrue."
"We are serious in our intention to reach a peace agreement, but we will insist that the outcome of the negotiations be determined at the negotiating table," he continued. "Israel is ready for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions."
At a meeting Monday with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is now serving as the Quartet's special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu urged the international community to press Abbas to resume the talks.
"We must start talking," he said. "The international community must refrain from taking steps that are liable to cause the Palestinian side to harden its positions. Instead, everyone must act in a way that will encourage the Palestinians to return to negotiations."
The Quartet is comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
But unlike Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed pessimism yesterday about the possibility of talks with the Palestinians achieving results in the near future even if they do resume.
"It will not be possible to reach a complete agreement in two years," Lieberman warned Blair during his meeting with the envoy. "It is not a realistic target. We must begin direct talks without committing to any deadline. In the past, we have set deadlines that were not kept and it led to violence."