CAIRO, March 3: Arab foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to back one last round of indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks despite scepticism over Israel’s readiness to revive peace efforts, Arab League chief Amr Mussa said.
The move, which came after months of US-led shuttle diplomacy, was swiftly welcomed by Israel but was slammed by the Hamas movement which controls Gaza as an ‘excuse’ for western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to rejoin negotiations that would “only lead to failure.”
Mr Mussa said that the Arab ministers had called for a four-month deadline for the indirect talks.
“Despite a lack of conviction over Israel’s seriousness, (Arab foreign ministers) will give indirect talks a chance, for the final time, in order to facilitate US efforts, within four months,” he said.
“There was a consensus that Israel is not interested in peace, the proof being what is taking place on occupied land... acts which are meant to provoke the Arab and American sides,” he added.
Negotiations have been on ice since Israel launched a devastating attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
The Palestinians have said they will only return to the negotiating table if Israel first halts all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
But Israel has agreed only to a 10-month freeze that excludes public buildings and annexed Arab east Jerusalem, failing to satisfy the Palestinians.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell proposed US-brokered indirect talks as a way of getting around the deadlock.
Israel welcomed the Arab ministers’ endorsement of indirect talks.
“We welcome this decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been continually calling for peace talks, and we hope that now the talks can move forward,” government spokesman Mark Regev said.Mr Netanyahu said conditions were ripe for talks.
“It seems the conditions are ripening for a renewal of talks between us and the Palestinians,” he told MPs.
“In general, the world understands that this government is on the path to negotiations and has taken difficult steps to advance the negotiations,” he said.
The Arab ministers said the talks should be based on the principles of a 2002 Arab peace initiative, which calls for full normalisation with Israel in exchange for a complete withdrawal by Israel from Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an ‘equitable’ solution for Palestinian refugees.
They stressed that any direct negotiations could only take place if there “is a complete halt of settlement activity on all occupied land, including Jerusalem. US-proposed indirect talks will not bear fruit if Israeli violations continue, which would lead to the failure of talks.”
There has been no let-up in Israeli settlement construction outside the limited 10-month moratorium Mr Netanyahu announced in November.
On Friday, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the government had given the green light for 600 new homes in a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, drawing US criticism.
Hamas slammed the Arab endorsement of indirect negotiations as a figleaf to cover a retreat by Abbas on his demand for a freeze on settlement expansion.
“The excuse given by Abbas that there is an Arab agreement to resume negotiations according to the American vision is a cover for him to climb down from the tree and into a maze of compromise,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, whose government is a major supporter of Hamas, said that the endorsement by Arab ministers of indirect talks was outside their mandate.
“The decision to go to indirect or direct talks is a Palestinian decision,” said Mr Muallem.—AFP