The Palestinians on Sunday 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 to tackle the hardest issues.
Over the next four months, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell 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 Mideast peace efforts. However, expectations are low and the shuttle format looks like a step backward, following some 16 years of direct, if intermittent, negotiations.
Mitchell's mission was devised to get around a deadlock over Israeli settlement construction. Abbas has said he will not negotiate directly without a settlement freeze, but Israel only agreed to a temporary slowdown in areas the Palestinians seek for their state.
Over the past five days, Mitchell has met twice with Netanyahu and three times with Abbas in final preparations for the talks. A last hurdle was cleared Saturday when the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas' Fatah movement endorsed the negotiations.
After an Abbas-Mitchell meeting on Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that "the proximity talks have started." He said negotiations would focus on the borders of a future Palestinian state and on security arrangements.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said indirect talks must lead to direct negotiations as quickly as possible.
"Peace can't be made from a distance or by remote control," he said at the beginning of his weekly Cabinet meeting. "We are neighbors of the Palestinians and they are our neighbors. Over time one cannot assume that that we will reach decisions and agreements on critical issues such as security and our national interests and their interests if we don't sit in the same room."
Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, met repeatedly in 2008 to discuss the borders of a future Palestinian state. The contacts broke off in December 2008, on the eve of Israel's military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War, but have said they are willing to accept a land swap to enable Israel to keep some large Jewish settlements built on captured land.
Abbas and Olmert disagreed over how much land Israel could annex and had not yet tackled the most explosive issue, Jerusalem. Hamas control over Gaza is also a major obstacle.
When Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, he hardened Israeli positions, saying he does not want to give up any part of east Jerusalem. He also listed a string of conditions for Palestinian statehood, including an Israeli presence in key areas of the West Bank.
The Palestinians felt there was no point negotiating with Netanyahu, especially while settlements continued to expand.
In this context, Abbas insisted on a settlement freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a condition for direct talks. Israel only agreed to a temporary slowdown in the West Bank, but reserved the right to keep building in east Jerusalem.
The indirect talks were devised as a compromise, but the arrangement was thrown into doubt in March when Israel announced new plans to build 1,600 homes for Jews in east Jerusalem.
The decision drew sharp criticism from the U.S. and prompted the Palestinians to back out of the talks just as they were to start.
Israel appears to have imposed an unofficial freeze in east Jerusalem as well, with no major projects approved since March, and Abbas aides say they have won U.S. assurances that Washington would respond decisively to any provocations.
The U.S. now has four months to try to create enough common ground for resuming direct talks.
Details of the logistics have not been announced, but Mitchell is expected to shuttle between Netanyahu's Jerusalem office and Abbas' Ramallah headquarters, a 30-minute drive apart.
Hamas, meanwhile, offered mixed reactions to the resumption of talks.
On Saturday, the Iranian-backed militant group denounced the PLO's endorsement as a "stab in the back" of the Palestinian people.
However, Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official, said Sunday that the group has repeatedly relayed messages in the past year to assure the U.S. that Hamas would not stand in the way of a peace deal, based on the 1967 Mideast borders.
Hamas' founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the group is shunned by the West as a terrorist organization. But some Hamas leaders have begun reaching out to the U.S. in recent months in hopes ending their isolation, while stopping short of international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
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