The prospects for the first negotiations involving Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership for over a year have increased after the nations of the Arab League gave qualified support to a US proposal for indirect talks between both sides.
The decision by Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday gives the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas political cover to enter “proximity” talks — in which the US would shuttle between the two sides — despite Palestinian and wider Arab scepticism over Israel's willingness to advance a genuine peace process.
The move was welcomed yesterday by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told the Knesset: “It seems that the conditions are ripening for the renewal of negotiations between us and the Palestinians.”
It was a measure of the tortuous and hitherto fruitless efforts to bring the two sides together that yesterday's move by the Arab League was being seen as a potentially significant turning point. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was “very pleased” by the decision and hoped talks would begin “soon”.
A statement endorsed at the meeting of 14 Arab states — with Syria's the main dissenting voice — backed the proximity talks as a “last ditch” effort to “facilitate” the US role in seeking to broker a peace deal. But it warned that they should be limited to four months in duration and should not automatically lead to direct talks.
Mr Abbas has refused to enter direct negotiations with Mr Netanyahu without the total settlement freeze originally demanded by Washington. Mr Netanyahu eventually agreed to halt new construction in the settlements for 10 months but not to stop work on building already deemed to be under way or to apply a freeze to East Jerusalem.
The US has since been pressing an at least initially reluctant Mr Abbas to agree to the indirect talks — in which President Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to act as the mediator — as a means of breaking the deadlock.