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Palestinians announce new Israel peace talks

The Palestinians yesterday announced the official start of indirect peace talks with Israel after a 17-month breakdown, while Israel's leader urged a quick transition to face-to-face negotiations.

Over the next four months, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell — the former Northern Ireland peace talks chairman — will shuttle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to narrow vast differences on the terms of Palestinian statehood.

The indirect talks mark the Obama administration's first concrete achievement in Middle East peace efforts. However, expectations are low and the shuttle format looks like a step backward, following some 16 years of direct, if intermittent, negotiations.

Mr Mitchell's mission was devised to get around a deadlock over Israeli settlement construction. Mr Abbas has said he will not negotiate directly without a settlement freeze, but Israel only agreed to a temporary slowdown. On Saturday the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Mr Abbas' Fatah movement endorsed the negotiations. After an Abbas-Mitchell meeting on Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced “the proximity talks have started”.

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