After months of diplomacy, US launches indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

JERUSALEM (AP) — A U.S. mediator launched Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations Wednesday after a break of more than a year, starting a shuttle mission between a hard-line Israeli government and a Palestinian administration in control of only part of its territory.

President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met for three hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start the indirect negotiations. In a statement, Netanyahu's office said the talks would continue on Thursday. No details were released.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the meeting was "good and productive" but did not give details.

Mitchell will travel between Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem and the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, less than half an hour's drive away.

But the positions of the two sides are worlds apart, and Mitchell's shuttling would be considered a success if he managed no more than to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down at the same table — something they did for nearly two decades before the last round of talks ended in January 2009.

The two could not even agree about the technicality of whether the talks had begun. Israel labeled the Mitchell-Netanyahu meeting Wednesday as the beginning of the mediation, while Palestinians insisted they still had to give formal approval to the process over the weekend.

Crowley said Mitchell's meeting on Saturday with Abbas would mark the start of the indirect talks.

Restarting the talks after a year of intensive diplomacy could give the Obama administration a badly needed foreign policy achievement, but it would be a temporary gain unless progress is made.

Abbas is allocating four months for the indirect talks, insisting that the main disagreements must be discussed — control of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders and Israel's West Bank settlements.

"Negotiations will focus on final status issues and there's no need to enter into details and small matters, because we have had enough of that in the previous negotiations," Abbas said after talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Jordanian capital.

"We said the indirect negotiations will last only four months," Abbas said. "After that, we will go to the Arab League to consult on whether to continue or what to do."

The Palestinians have refused to hold direct talks with Israel until it freezes all Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu agrees to talk about everything but has made it clear that his priority is safeguarding Israel's security.

Over the past decade, the two sides have come close to a comprehensive accord twice, but talks broke down both times in disagreement over core issues, especially Jerusalem, home to holy sites revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Palestinians demand a state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, with some minor land exchanges and a link between the West Bank and Gaza through Israel.

While Netanyahu has reluctantly endorsed creation of a Palestinian state, he has posed strict security conditions, fearing that the West Bank would fall under control of Islamic Hamas militants. Hamas forces expelled Abbas loyalists from Gaza in 2007, and since then, Israeli border communities have become frequent targets for rockets from Gaza.

Both sides face formidable internal obstacles to far-reaching compromise.

Abbas' loss of Gaza is a major impediment because he does not control all the territory that Palestinians claim for a state. Also, Hamas has rejected any peace talks with Israel and threatens to undermine Abbas' position in the West Bank.

Netanyahu heads a coalition government that includes hard-line elements, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who oppose giving control of much of the West Bank to the Palestinians or removing Jewish settlements there.


Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.