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Arab League leaves timing of restarting Israel talks up to Palestinians, rebuffing US pressure

CAIRO (AP) — Arab nations on Thursday backed the Palestinian president's refusal to immediately restart direct talks with Israel despite heavy U.S. pressure.

The Arab foreign ministers endorsed the idea of direct negotiations, said Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, but left the timing up to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has laid down several conditions.

The U.S. and the Europeans have been pushing a reluctant Abbas to dive back into face-to-face negotiations with Israel, which broke off in 2008.

"We haven't discussed when and how the direct negotiations will start — this is a matter for the Palestinian side to decide," Al Thani said.

The Arab foreign ministers also sent a letter to President Barack Obama explaining the Arab position on direct negotiations and their requirements for talks.

Al Thani said that the ministers had originally been against endorsing direct talks, but due to the serious situation in the region they were willing give it a try.

"We have confidence in America and in President Obama to reach peace, but the question is can that be achieved?" he said, expressing doubt that it would be possible under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. welcomes the Arab endorsement of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and will be consulting with all parties in coming days to find a way forward.

"We are encouraged by reports that Arab states meeting in Cairo agree on the need to resume direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to reach a final status agreement," Crowley said.

"In the days ahead, we will continue to work with the parties, consult further with Arab countries and our international partners to try to launch these negotiations as soon as possible."

This week, The Associated Press obtained a Palestinian document that revealed that U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell warned Abbas that if he does not agree to direct talks, Obama will not be able to help the Palestinians achieve a state of their own.

But the Palestinian president said he first wants to see progress in indirect talks that have been taking place since May under U.S. mediation, specifically movement on the issue of borders for a future Palestinian state. He has also called for a halt to settlement building.

Netanyahu, who has appealed for direct talks, has refused to be pinned down on a framework for negotiations. The Israeli prime minister has accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood with conditions but has ruled out giving up control of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital.

"In response to the Arab League's decision, the prime minister said he is willing to begin direct, honest talks with the Palestinian Authority already in the next few days," said a statement from his office.

On settlements, Israel has instituted a 10-month slowdown in construction in the West Bank, but not east Jerusalem. That is due to expire in September and Netanyahu this week strongly indicated it would not be extended.

Netanyahu's hawkish coalition partners insist the freeze cannot be renewed for ideological reasons, but they have not threatened to pull out of his government and force an election.

Polls show the hard-liners have no guarantee of remaining in power if an election is held.

Netanyahu opposes all conditions for renewing direct talks, including a settlement construction freeze. In any event, Palestinians have rejected the current limits as insufficient, because they do not include construction in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

"The issue of settlements, along with all the other core issues ... should be discussed in the negotiations," Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told The Associated Press on Thursday.

On Thursday Jewish settlers took over a building in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, evicting the Palestinian residents. The Israelis apparently bought the building in the 1980s but needed a court order to remove the residents.

Israeli police would not say if they had the order.

U.N. envoy Robert Serry deplored the takeover and called on Israel to "refrain from provocative actions."

About 2,000 Israeli settlers are living in houses bought by Jews in established Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, many in the Old City.

This week Netanyahu indicated that he would not extend the freeze. As the expiration date approaches, Netanyahu can be expected to seek a political compromise to try to satisfy both the U.S. and his coalition partners.

In an interview Thursday, Abbas said he would require written assurances either from Netanyahu or the Americans on borders and settlements to start the direct talks.

Egypt said a day earlier it has received U.S. assurances that may help in restarting direct talks but refused to make the details public.

The militant Hamas movement issued a statement on Thursday criticizing the Arab nations' move, maintaining that direct negotiations would only lead to "to more Palestinian suffering as Israel goes on constructing settlements."

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Associated Press writer Mark Lavie contributed to this report from Jerusalem.