Arab League backs indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis

The Israeli government welcomed the move, with a spokesman saying he hoped "talks can now move forward".

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RAMALLAH // Arab foreign ministers yesterday endorsed a proposal for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis, boosting a US effort to bring the sides back to a full-fledged peace process. The Israeli government welcomed the move, with a spokesman saying he hoped "talks can now move forward".

Analysts, however, consider the measure primarily a means of political cover for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. The PLO, which Mr Abbas heads, has refused to enter negotiations with Israel as long as it continues its construction of settlements in occupied territory, which are illegal under international law. That position is widely supported by Palestinians, but in recent months, US, European as well as Arab pressure has been mounting on Mr Abbas to resume some form of negotiations. The US thus proposed indirect, or proximity, talks to end the impasse.

The 14 Arab representatives, who met in Cairo yesterday, however insisted that indirect talks were a "last chance", according to Amr Mousa, the Arab League's secretary-general. "Despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side, the committee sees that it would give the indirect talks the chance as a last attempt and to facilitate the US role," said Mr Mousa, reading from a statement.

He added that Arab foreign ministers backed the talks on the condition that they last no more than four months. "This should not be an open-ended process." The ministers also added that the talks, which would see US officials shuttling back and forth between the sides, should not turn into direct talks without a total freeze in settlement construction and clear terms of reference. A one-year settlement construction freeze had been an early request from the Obama administration to Israel last year.

It was seized on by the PLO, which has always pinned blame for the failure of the Oslo process on the continued Israeli expansion of settlements throughout the period of those negotiations. That construction saw the number of settlers in occupied territory more than double in seven years. Israel, however, has successfully resisted what US pressure there was to implement such a freeze. Instead, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in November announced a partial "slowdown" in construction that did not include occupied East Jerusalem, and that would last only 10 months.

The White House said it was satisfied with the move, but Mr Abbas refused to back down. But increasingly the US and European pressure was brought to bear on Mr Abbas and it became clear that the PLO would have to agree to restart talks without the requested settlement freeze. "[The PLO] needed an Arab umbrella, to be able to say that Arab countries wanted us to go back to talks," said Ziyad Abu Zayyad, editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal. "There are many who will blame the PLO for accepting to go back to negotiations without getting a full settlement freeze and for that, the leadership needed Arab cover."

Hamas, for its part, last night derided the Arab League decision to endorse indirect negotiations as a fig leaf, AFP said. It is also not clear what will be gained from indirect talks. The sides remain far apart in their positions, and both in Israel, where a far-right coalition can bring down the government at any time, as well as among the Palestinians, divided between the Fatah-led West Bank and Hamas-led Gaza Strip, domestic constraints are considerable.

Mr Abbas last week announced he was not optimistic about any negotiations at this stage, and George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst, suggested the Americans "were playing it by ear". "There is no clear plan and this is just an attempt to buy time." Arab countries may not want another open-ended process, but that may be exactly what will happen. "The Netanyahu government gives me no reason to believe that there will be any change," said Mr Abu Zayyad.