Arab follow-up committee agrees moving to direct talks, sends message of Arab demands to U.S. President Obama

Abbas: We will not declare Palestinian state unilaterally, would quit if negotiations falter

Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques receives phone call from Egyptian President Mubarak on latest developments

Obama affirms to Mubarak his commitment to establishing Palestinian state

Arab foreign ministers have given their backing to direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, provided a schedule and an agenda are agreed on beforehand, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani said.

“The direct talks have to have a time frame,” Al-Thani told reporters in Cairo. “We didn’t talk about when and how to launch the direct talks.” The timing would be decided by the Palestinians, he said, and a message outlining the Arab position had been sent to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was ready to begin direct peace talks “within days.” His response came in a text message to reporters.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo last week presented the 13 foreign ministers who make up the Arab Peace Initiative Committee with the results of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians conducted by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Obama has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Abbas to move to direct talks.

Obama said on July 6 that direct Israel-Palestinian talks may start within three months. Abbas has said he wants a complete halt to the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank before meeting Netanyahu face-to-face.

The Arab League endorsed the U.S.-brokered negotiations in May and gave them four months to produce tangible results.

The summit follows a meeting in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

The Saudi monarch is the sponsor of a draft peace agreement, drawn up in 2002 and endorsed by 22 countries, that proposes normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.

Abbas suspended peace negotiations with Israel after its 2008 military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.

“The Palestinian leadership still has the desire to make peace based on the implementation of the world’s resolutions, but Israel, so far, hasn’t shown any seriousness,” Jamal Mehesen, a senior member of Abbas’ ruling Fatah party, told Voice of Palestine radio last week.

Netanyahu on July 26 told a parliamentary committee that a 10-month freeze on settlement construction, which expires in September, still stands.

Abbas and Netanyahu separately held talks with Egypt’s President Mubarak in Cairo on July 18, though they didn’t meet each other. Netanyahu later flew to Amman to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah on July 27, where the two leaders discussed ways of restarting direct talks ”that would resolve all final status issues” in line with a two-state solution, the official Petra News Agency said.

Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a treaty with Israel in 1994 after Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979.

Arab nations on Thursday backed the Palestinian president’s refusal to immediately restart direct talks with Israel despite heavy US pressure.

The Arab foreign ministers endorsed the idea of direct negotiations, said Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, but left the timing up to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has laid down several conditions.

The US and the Europeans have been pushing a reluctant Abbas to dive back into face-to-face negotiations with Israel, which broke off in 2008.

“We haven’t discussed when and how the direct negotiations will start – this is a matter for the Palestinian side to decide,” the Qatari premier said.

The Arab foreign ministers also sent a letter to President Barack Obama explaining the Arab position on direct negotiations and their requirements for talks.

Sheikh Hamad said the ministers had originally been against endorsing direct talks, but due to the serious situation in the region they were willing to give it a try.

“We have confidence in America and in President Obama [wanting] to reach peace, but the question is can that be achieved?” he said, expressing doubt that it would be possible under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US responded to the announcement, saying it was “encouraged” by signs of support for the resumption of direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

“We’re encouraged by what we’ve heard today from Cairo,” State Department Philip Crowley spokesman told reporters, adding that President Obama’s administration is hopeful negotiations will resume soon.

This week, the Associated Press obtained a Palestinian document that revealed that US peace envoy George Mitchell warned Abbas that if he does not agree to direct talks, Obama will not be able to help the Palestinians achieve a state of their own.

But the Palestinian president said he first wants to see progress in indirect talks that have been taking place since May under US mediation, specifically movement on the issue of borders for a future Palestinian state.

He has also called for a halt to further settlement building. Netanyahu, who has appealed for direct talks, has refused to be pinned down on a framework for negotiations.

The Israeli prime minister has accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood with conditions, but has ruled out giving up control of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital, and which international law deems as a necessary condition.

“In response to the Arab League’s decision, the prime minister said he is willing to begin direct, honest talks with the Palestinian Authority already in the next few days,” said a statement from his office.

On settlements, Israel has instituted a nominal 10-month slowdown in construction in the West Bank, but not East Jerusalem. That is due to expire in September and Netanyahu this week strongly indicated it would not be extended.

Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners insist the freeze cannot be renewed for ideological reasons, but they have not threatened to pull out of his government and force an election.

Polls show the hardliners have no guarantee of remaining in power if an election is held.

Netanyahu opposes all conditions for renewing direct talks, including a settlement construction freeze. In any event, Palestinians have rejected the current limits as insufficient, because they do not include construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

“The issue of settlements, along with all the other core issues … should be discussed in the negotiations,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told the Associated Press on Thursday.

This week Netanyahu indicated that he would not extend the freeze. As the expiration date approaches, Prime Minister Netanyahu can be expected to seek a political compromise to try to satisfy both the US and his coalition partners.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said Thursday that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet UN chief Ban Ki-moon Friday to discuss the situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s settlement policy.

The spokesman told a press briefing that the two leaders would discuss a range of issues, including “the situation in Gaza and the need to continue Israel’s freeze on settlement activity.”

In an interview Thursday, Abbas said he would require written assurances either from Netanyahu or the Americans on borders and settlements to start the direct talks.

Egypt said a day earlier it has received US assurances that may help in restarting direct talks but refused to make the details public.

Meanwhile, Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud received a telephone call from President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

During the conversation, cordial talks were exchanged in addition to reviewing the relations of cooperation between the two countries and latest developments at the Arab and international arenas.