CAIRO – Arab nations gave the green light Wednesday for Palestinians to enter indirect negotiations with Israel for a preliminary four-month period, a decision likely to break the months-long deadlock over resuming Mideast peace talks.
The United States has proposed indirect negotiations, with American officials mediating, to end the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians over the conditions for resuming negotiations Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down more than a year ago, when Israel launched a bruising offensive against the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers.
The Arab approval gives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the political cover he needs to accept the offer. Abbas has staunchly rejected direct talks unless Israel calls a complete halt to construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — and he had been wary of entering even indirect talks without Arab backing.
The gathering of 14 Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo agreed.
"Despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side, the committee sees that it would give the indirect talks the chance as a last attempt and to facilitate the U.S. role," said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, reading from a statement.
Moussa said Arab foreign ministers backed the talks on the condition that they last four months. "This should not be an open-ended process," he said.
The ministers also said the indirect negotiations, which would see U.S. officials shuttling back and forth between the sides, should not turn into direct Israeli-Palestinian talks without a total freeze in settlement construction.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instituted a 10-month halt on new construction in the West Bank in November, but the measure does not include building that was already started or construction in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.
Moussa stressed that even indirect negotiations are doomed to failure if Israeli measures such as settlement construction continue. He warned that if indirect talks fail to yield results, the Arabs will call for an emergency Security Council meeting to address the Arab-Israeli conflict and would ask Washington not to use its veto.
Abbas has been under strong pressure from U.S.-allied Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to accept the American proposal for indirect talks, but the Palestinian president has told Arab leaders he will not take this step alone.
He has been eager to secure U.S. guarantees that Israel will be committed to the outcome of the talks before agreeing to negotiations, but said Tuesday he would adhere to the Arab foreign ministers' decision.
Wednesday's statement did not receive the unanimous support of the 14 Arab nations that took part in the meeting.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem interrupted Moussa while he was reading the statement, insisting that the decision on whether to join indirect talks or not was up to the Palestinians. "The Palestinians are better positioned to know what to do," he said.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which wrested power from Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007, rejected Wednesday's decision, calling it inappropriate in light of rising tensions over religious sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron.
Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said the Hamas government "would not give any ... permission to return to negotiations, whether it is direct or indirect, considering what is happening in ... Jerusalem and Hebron."
Last week, Israel placed two West Bank shrines, including one in Hebron, on a list of national heritage sites, enraging Palestinians, who claim the West Bank for a future state and see the move as an attempt by Israel to cement its presence there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Arab League decision to support U.S.-brokered talks.
"It seems that the conditions are ripening for the renewal of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," he said. "In the Middle East you need two to tango, but it could be that we need three to tango and we might need to leapfrog at first but the obstacle isn't and never was Israel."
Vice President Joe Biden is expected in the region next week to push the peace efforts.
Meanwhile, the Mideast quartet — Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States — is slated to meet in Moscow on March 19 to discuss new peace efforts in the region.