TEL AVIV // The Arab League yesterday announced that it has agreed in principle for the Palestinians to restart direct negotiations with Israel but insisted that such talks should not resume without a schedule and an agenda, as well as US assurances involving the future Palestinian state.
Despite intense pressure from the US and Israel, the foreign ministers and representatives of key members of the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, declined to support an immediate resumption of face-to-face discussions. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, who chaired the meeting, said: "I'll be clear. There is an agreement, but with an understanding of what will be discussed and how the direct negotiations will be conducted." He added that the direct talks "have to have a timeframe" and that the group had sent Washington a letter outlining its stance.
Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said that Washington must supply "written guarantees", especially on the issue of Israeli settlements, before the restart of talks that have been suspended since December 2008. Mr Moussa added: "We are not against negotiations. But we cannot accept talks with no preconditions." The group's announcement comes a day after Egypt stated that it had received certain assurances from the US that may help spur direct talks, although it declined to detail them.
George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, has been mediating indirect talks between the two sides for more than two months. The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, has said that it hoped for direct negotiations to start in September, when a four-month deadline set by the Arab League for indirect discussions is to expire. Sheikh Hamad said that the timing of the direct discussions "is a matter for the Palestinian side to decide". He also added that he was "full of doubts" about Israel's seriousness regarding the negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, had repeatedly said that he will oppose direct talks unless Israel agrees to a total stop to settlement construction and accepts the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories that it seized during the 1967 war. Those areas include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and mostly-Arab East Jerusalem. Mr Abbas also wants Israel to accept the idea of a third party guarding the future Palestinian state's borders, and to agree to a land swap that would compensate Palestinians for territory taken over by Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said in a statement that the premier is "ready to start, already in the next few days, direct and frank talks with the Palestinian Authority". Yesterday, Mr Abbas was quoted by Egypt's state-owned news agency as saying: "When I receive written assurances about accepting the 1967 border and halting the settlement growth, I will go immediately to the direct talks."
Mr Abbas added that he would accept guarantees of those conditions either directly from Mr Netanyahu's government or indirectly from the US, Israel's closest ally, or from Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab countries which are at peace with Israel. In reference to pressure he has faced from the US and the Europeans to negotiate face-to-face with the Israelis, the Palestinian leader said: "I am under a kind of pressure that I haven't been through all my life." Asked what he would do if the indirect talks yield little progress, Mr Abbas said that he would "step down".
Mr Netanyahu, who has pushed for direct negotiations with the Palestinians, has resisted Mr Abbas's demands. Indeed, yesterday he was quoted by Israel's liberal Haaretz daily newspaper as warning that his government could collapse if he decides to extend a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction, which is to expire on September 26. The Israeli premier has also charged that politicians from Israeli left-wing and centrist parties that are not part of his ruling coalition are trying to undercut the peace negotiations in a bid to weaken his government. Speaking to the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and defence, he said earlier this week: "There are people systematically sabotaging the start of talks with the Palestinians. And I am not talking about my colleagues from right-wing coalition parties."
Yesterday, Israeli radio reported that Haim Ramon, a senior member of the centrist opposition Kadima party, in early July met with Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, at a Jerusalem hotel to persuade him to oppose direct talks. According to the report, which cited an unidentified person who sat near the two men, Mr Ramon told Mr Erekat that he had been sent by Shimon Peres, Israel's president and a former Kadima member. Mr Peres, however, yesterday denied being involved, while Mr Ramon said the eavesdropper misinterpreted the discussion.