TEL AVIV // Israel and the Palestinians showed signs of making progress towards direct talks yesterday after the Israeli premier announced that face-to-face negotiations may start later this month and a Palestinian negotiator said that the Palestinians may be prepared for more concessions than previously indicated. "It's possible that there will be a commencement of direct talks in the middle of August," Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told government ministers from his Likud party. "It is still not certain, but efforts are being made these days in that direction."
The premier did not specify what he had based his assessment on. His comments come just three days after the Arab League agreed in principle for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks but said that it would be up to the Palestinians to decide on the timing. Israel and the Palestinians have been in indirect, US-mediated negotiations since May and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has been under intense pressure from Washington and European leaders to resume direct talks with Israel, which broke off in December 2008.
Israel has also pressed the Palestinians to restart direct negotiations. Shimon Peres, the country's president, flew to Cairo yesterday to meet with Hosni Mubarak to press his Egyptian counterpart to convince the Palestinians to re-launch face-to-face discussions. Mr Netanyahu, speaking to his entire cabinet yesterday, said he had held "good and substantive" recent talks with US, European and Arab leaders - the latter including Mr Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II - on shifting to direct talks. He added: "I think that the international community, at least an important part of it, and certainly the US, expects the Palestinian Authority to put aside the claims, excuses and conditions, and enter into peace talks." Mr Abbas's office yesterday did not comment on Mr Netanyahu's expectation for direct discussions to restart within weeks. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, yesterday told the Palestinian Maan radio that direct talks will resume only after Israel agrees to halt all Jewish construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and approves the borders of a future Palestinian state. Nevertheless, Mr Erekat indicated that the Palestinians are making moves towards advancing the peace process. He told Israeli media that he was awaiting Israel's response to a detailed plan that included maps. The plan was given to Israel more than two months ago through George Mitchell, Washington's envoy to the Middle East. In an interview with Israeli radio, he described the proposal as the Palestinians' "best offer ever." Mr Erekat also suggested in an interview with the Haaretz daily newspaper that the Palestinians showed more willingness to make compromises with the new plan than during the direct talks that Mr Abbas had conducted with former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert in 2008. Referring to Mr Abbas by his nickname, Abu Mazen, Mr Erekat said: "I cannot go into details on what exactly was proposed, but Abu Mazen offered more in these documents than what he had proposed to Olmert in the past. Abu Mazen took bigger steps to reach peace." Mr Erekat said that the plan included the Palestinian position on all the thorny issues, including the fate of Jerusalem, refugees, water and security. He added that the Palestinians have become more flexible on a possible land swap with Israel that compensates the Palestinians for West Bank land taken up by Jewish settlements, some of which are expected to be annexed to Israel under any peace agreement. According to Haaretz, Mr Erekat earlier this year distributed a document to European diplomats saying that the Palestinians had offered Mr Olmert a land swap that would allow Israel to annex 1.9 per cent of the West Bank. Several non-Israeli media organisations, however, have reported that the Palestinians may even be prepared to allow Israel to keep almost four per cent of the West Bank. Mr Erekat also denied reports over the weekend that the administration of Barack Obama, US president, had threatened sanctions and even a severing of ties with the Palestinians if they continued to resist direct talks. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the top decision-making body of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, on Saturday was quoted by London's Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi as saying that there has been "huge pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move to direct talks. They even threatened to isolate the Palestinians and cut off relations." The signs of progress come amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group that rules Gaza and which rivals Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement. In a break from the relative quiet on the Gaza border in recent months, Israeli aircraft yesterday bombed a smuggling tunnel and a Palestinian military training camp in Gaza. The attack came in response to a rocket fired from Gaza at the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Saturday, which caused heavy damage to buildings. The attack was viewed by Israeli officials as a bid by militants to show displeasure over the Arab League's backing for direct peace talks. * The National