Senior Israeli officials estimate that the "proximity talks" with the Palestinian Authority will be launched in the middle of next week, this despite the uproar over Israel's approval of the construction of 1,600 housing units in east Jerusalem, which came during US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the region.
"We've heard nothing that indicates that the Palestinians are unwilling to begin negotiations," a senior official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Thursday night.
The Israeli optimism is based on information relayed by US officials who are in contact with the Palestinian government in Ramallah.
According to the US State Department, the indirect talks are set to begin on schedule upon the return of Mideast envoy George Mitchell to the region.
Israel is hoping that the indirect talks under US mediation will last only a few weeks, after which the sides will begin negotiating directly. The Palestinians, for their part, want the indirect talks to focus on the core issues – the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the Palestinians refugees.
The PA hopes the Americans will pressure Israel into being more flexible on these issues.
The Israeli negotiating team will be headed by Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, a longtime associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mike Herzog.
Mitchell, who will shuttle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, may ask to meet with a number of Israeli ministers, including Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. It is unclear how long the American envoy will remain in the region.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu made it clear to Biden that the announcement on the construction in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo was not made during his visit intentionally.
"The embarrassing incident is behind us," he said, "And we're moving forward to the 'proximity talks'."