Arabs offer 4-month window for indirect talks with Israel, Syria reserves

Abbas says Arab approval carries several messages to U.S. administration

Arab FMs meeting in Cairo condemn Israel’s practices, stress peace process as indivisible unit of comprehensive Israeli withdrawal, rejection of settlements, independent Palestinian state

Meeting stresses Jerusalem as Palestinian capital, plan laid to rescue Jerusalem, stop construction of racist separation wall

Netanyahu says he convinced Jerusalem mayor to stop demolishing Palestinians’ homes

Arab states backed a U.S. proposal for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israel, a move that analysts said would allow Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to circumvent his vow not to negotiate before Israel stops building settlements.

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo agreed to give the indirect talks four months to succeed and will call an emergency UN Security Council meeting if they fail, Arab League Secretary- General Amre Moussa said in a televised speech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Arab League decision to support the talks, his spokesman Mark Regev said.

“This is a last-ditch attempt,” Moussa said. “I repeat: this is a last-ditch attempt.” Ministers approved the proposal even though Israeli policies make it likely that “indirect talks will not yield results,” he said.

Israel-Palestinian talks have been frozen since Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip in late 2008. U.S.-led efforts to revive negotiations have foundered on the issue of settlement construction, with the Palestinians demanding a total cessation of all building and Israel agreeing to a partial freeze.

“The only meaning of this decision is to cover Mahmoud Abbas,” said Moustafa El-Husseini, co-author of a book on the Arab-Israeli conflict called “The Dilemma of an Arab, the Dilemma of a Jew.” “Abbas had said no talks before a freeze on settlement construction, and now he wants to back down.” Mark Heller, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, was also skeptical.

“I doubt it will produce any substantial breakthrough unless the U.S. is prepared to put a great deal of pressure on both sides,” he said. “This is a way for everybody to revive the appearance of a working peace process.”

The decision to back indirect talks was taken by a special committee of foreign ministers that includes Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. Abbas said that he would accept any decision by the committee.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said in a statement carried by the authority’s official Wafa news agency that the Palestinian leader “looked at the committee’s final statement and found out that it is accepted by both the Palestinian Authority and the Arab countries.”

Regev said Israel hoped now “that it will be possible to move forward.” He declined to discuss details about the structure and content of the talks.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has criticized Israel for building settlements and called for their halt to revive peace talks. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu for agreeing in November to a partial settlement freeze.

Arab analysts including El-Husseini say the U.S. wants Arabs to compromise after failing to extract more concessions from Israel.

“Netanyahu has swept the floor with Obama,” El-Husseini said. “Obama had upped the ante and couldn’t keep it.”

Arab support for the plan wasn’t unanimous. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem unsuccessfully tried to interrupt Moussa’s speech to express reservations about the agreement.

“There was no consensus on the statement,” and the decision to restart talks should have been left to the Palestinians, al-Muallem said later when given the floor.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on March 8, a Palestinian official said on Wednesday.

"President Abbas is to hold talks next Monday with George Mitchell in Ramallah," said chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, without giving details.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, welcomed Arab backing at a foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo earlier on Wednesday for indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Washington hopes the talks will begin soon, Clinton said during a visit to Brazil, confirming that Mitchell would play a central role.

The Arab foreign ministers agreed to back one last round of indirect talks despite skepticism over Israel's readiness to revive peace efforts, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said in Cairo.

"We were very pleased by the endorsement that came out of Cairo, that came out of the Arab follow-up group with respect to the proximity talks. We hope that they will begin soon," Clinton told reporters in Brasilia.

"Senator Mitchell will be deeply involved in those talks," she added.

"I think the United States, along with other countries, are very committed to try to bring about the two-state solution and we hope the proximity talks will be the beginning of that process," she said.

Hamas has called for the Arab League to review its decision to support the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian indirect peace talks, which have been stalled for more than a year due to Israel's refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Arab League foreign ministers agreed to support the U.S.-backed plan during a regular meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, giving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas political backing to push through the resumption of talks.

"We expected that the meeting of Arab [foreign] ministers in Cairo would demonstrate a more firm position... Instead of this, their decision provides Arab auspices for the resumption of talks amid continuing intrusion on the Palestinian capital [Jerusalem] and Judaization of its holy places," Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, said during a government meeting on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced last week that two holy sites located in the Palestinian Territories and once shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims — Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron — would be included in a list of 150 Israeli National Heritage Sites. The move, which is seen as an effort to control the sites for exclusively Jewish use, sparked a wave of protests in the Islamic world.

Haniyeh made it clear that Hamas would support neither indirect, nor direct talks with the Israelis.

The Israeli government, in its turn, praised the Arab League's decision. Netanyahu stressed that his country had never opposed the resumption of talks.

"The world understands that our government is willing the talks [to resume] and takes uneasy practical steps to achieve this," he said.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have stalled since Israel's late 2008 offensive on the Gaza Strip aimed at ending rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave. The conflict left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, has been the main obstacle to reviving the peace talks.

Netanyahu announced in late November 2009 that construction would be limited in the occupied West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem. He also said construction would resume in the future. The Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiations until the construction is completely halted.

Under the internationally agreed roadmap for Middle East peace, Israel is obliged to freeze all settlement construction activity, and remove unauthorized outposts built since 2001 from the Palestinian territories.

A meeting of the Quartet of international mediators in Israeli-Palestinian talks, which comprises Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, will take place in the Russian capital Moscow in mid-March.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday to delay a plan to demolish East Jerusalem houses and give retroactive building permits to others, in order to build an archaeological park.

Barkat's plan, which was due to be announced later Tuesday, would reportedly see around half the 88 homes built without permits in Silwan, in East Jerusalem, demolished, and their residents re-housed in new buildings. The remaining homes would be retroactively legalized.

The area earmarked for the plan, known in Arabic as al-Bustan (the Garden) and in Hebrew as Gan Hamelekh (King's Garden), is believed by some to be the spot where King Solomon wrote the "Song of Solomon" 3,000 years ago.

Barkat hopers to turn the area into a tourist attraction by building boutiques and hotels.

But according to a statement issued by Netanyahu's office, the premier contacted Barkat and asked him "to allocate more time to attempts to reach an understanding with Silwan residents."

The residents of the neighborhood, located adjacent to, and south of, Jerusalem's Old City, had reacted angrily to the plan, with their spokesman saying the scheme was a pretext to drive Palestinians away, and warning of violence if it went ahead.

"This is a political decision. It has nothing to do with just building a biblical park. They want us out of Silwan and Jerusalem for political reasons," Fakhri Abu Diab said.

"They cannot come now and say we should leave because they want to take our homes and build a park in their place," he told the German Press Agency dpa.

"This will not happen. We will never leave. If they insist on this, I believe there will be trouble and it could get violent," he warned.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War, and incorporated it into the municipal boundaries of West Jerusalem.

In 1980 the Israeli government formally declared East Jerusalem to be a part of its "eternal and undivided" capital, a decision rejected by Palestinians, who see it instead as the capital of their future state.

Netanyahu has generally kept aloof and not interfered in decisions regarding construction in East Jerusalem.