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Mideast peace talks will resume in 'coming weeks': Netanyahu

by Staff Writers
Jerusalem (AFP) Feb 3, 2010
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he expects peace talks with the Palestinians to resume in the coming weeks, nudged on by the United States, after being stalled for more than a year.

"I have reasons to believe, realistically, that we will resume the peace process with the Palestinians, without prior conditions, in the coming weeks," he told a conference on security in Herzliya, northern Israel.

Without providing details, the premier suggested that the United States had a hand in the breakthrough.

"It is customary to say that it takes two to tango, but it sometimes takes three in the Middle East, at least to get started dancing the tango, after which I suppose a couple can carry on dancing," he said.

"I hope that if there is willingness on the Palestinian side to build peace, to conduct negotiations to reach a peace accord, we will see a resumption of the peace process in the coming weeks," he added.

Talks came to an abrupt halt when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in a brief but very deadly war.

Since then, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has steadfastly refused to resume negotiations until Israel completely halts construction in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has been unwilling to do that.

Netanyahu did not reveal on Wednesday the basis on which the talks would take place.

But US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was in the region at the end of January. He met with leaders on both sides and presented a new initiative aimed at bringing the parties closer together.

At the time, Netanyahu spoke of "interesting ideas," but did not elaborate.

For his part, Palestinien Mahmud Abbas said on Monday that he would give a response to Mitchell's proposal within a week.

On January 25, the Palestinians said the United States had called on Israel to loosen its hold on some Palestinian-controlled areas, release a number of prisoners and ease a virtual blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The initiative was aimed at "creating an atmosphere" for the relaunching of peace talks, the official said.

Mitchell's plan calls on Israel to cease military operations in so-called Area A of the occupied West Bank, which is under full Palestinian control, and pull back from some parts of Area B, which is under Palestinian civil control, the official said.

It would also allow Palestinian security forces to enter Area C, which is under complete Israeli military control, and would free a number of Palestinian prisoners, he added.

He said Israel would ease sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, allowing rebuilding of the territory, which was devastated during the massive Israeli offensive.

Israel would also be bound to transfer customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinians to the Palestinian Authority on a monthly basis, the official said.

He said Netanyahu had requested a meeting with Abbas to discuss the initiative ahead of a formal announcement.

"But Abbas insisted that Israel implement the ideas first, before any talks, considering that these are Israeli obligations. We will consider them goodwill gestures," the official said.

A senior Israeli official told AFP the United States had suggested "discussions take place initially at the level of teams working on different subjects, before proposing confidence-building measures."

Such a strategy would pave the way for "normal discussions to resume," the official added, without elaborating.

Abbas has not dropped his demand that Israel halt all settlement growth in the occupied West Bank and mostly Arab east Jerusalem ahead of any talks, or his insistance on a framework of guidelines for the negotiations.

Mitchell suggested indirect talks with US mediation to thrash out the main points of the latest initiative and the two Palestinian demands, the official said.

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