Arab League nations on Saturday endorsed a resumption of negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, raising hopes that indirect talks brokered by the United States could revive the stalled peace process.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters after a meeting of Arab officials in Cairo that the regional body would back indirect negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli officials.
"The timeframe of indirect talks will not change from what was agreed to in March, and there will be no change from indirect talks to direct talks until after the outcome of indirect talks has been assessed," he said.
But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that without a total freeze on construction in the West Bank proximity talks with Israel would not begin as scheduled next week.
"If Israel builds one house in the West Bank, Palestinians will immediately stop the negotiations," he said.
Speaking to Reuters by phone after the meeting, Erekat said a final decision would be made by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation executive committee next week.
"It was a very positive meeting and they made a consultative decision on engagement in proximity talks for four months," he said.
Erekat in Cairo (Photo: AP)
Nir Hefetz, head of the National Information Directorate, said in response that "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said time and again that Israel wants to renew peace talks with the Palestinians at any time and any place, as long as this is done without preconditions." He said no change had been made in this stand.
A source close to the prime minister added, "Those who are really serious about their intentions to launch the peace process should refrain from talking about preconditions which never existed and clearly will never exist."
'Israel must efrain from one-sided decisions'
Sources in the Palestinian Authority confirmed to Ynet that one of the major points of negotiation would be construction in settlements. They said that Israel would have to agree to extend the construction freeze past September as a basis for the talks.
The sources said there was no word yet on the negotiating teams, but Ynet has learned that the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, may be replaced during the talks.
They added that so far the US was keeping Israel from violating the temporary freeze but that the PA planned to demand the establishment of a team to supervise this throughout the negotiations.
The Palestinians say that their main demand is for Israel to refrain from making one-sided decisions during the resumption of talks. Sources say the negotiations will probably kick off after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returns from a visit to the US.
They added that contrary to the original plan, proximity talks would not last for four months but rather for a number of weeks at most, and then the sides will move to direct talks on a permanent agreement.
The Arab League's announcement came just a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians would resume next week.
"Ultimately we want to see the parties in direct negotiations and working out all the difficult issues," Clinton said during a meeting with visiting Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah.
"They've been close a few times before," Clinton said. "So we are looking to see the resumption of those discussions."
Roni Sofer and Roee Nahmias contributed to this report