Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks

Israel and the Palestinians will resume direct peace talks here in early September, striving for a deal within a year to create an independent Palestinian state, US officials announced on Friday.

President Barack Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Backed by a diplomatic quartet of world powers, the parties will “relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year,” she announced at the US State Department.

Mubarak and the king will attend “in view of their critical role in this effort,” said the top US diplomat, who underlined: “Their continued leadership and commitment to peace will be essential to our success.”

Clinton said she and Obama, who has pushed hard for resuming talks that lapsed in December 2008, as well as Netanyahu and Abbas shared “the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

She said the new round of negotiations “should take place without preconditions and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success, which will bring a better future to all of the people of the region.”

Obama will hold bilateral talks with the four leaders, followed by a group dinner, on September 1, Clinton said, adding that the Quartet representative, former British prime minister Tony Blair was invited to the meal.

“There have been difficulties in the past. There will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and derail these talks,” said Clinton.

“But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.

The resumption of talks — a modest breakthrough for Obama’s diplomacy — was to occur under the auspices of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, the Middle East peace Quartet.

Based on the months of shuttle diplomacy of Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the talks were due to address “final status” issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Israel has said it is prepared to enter direct negotiations, but without preconditions, while the Palestinians have demanded a halt to all Israeli settlement activity and guidelines on the negotiation of final borders.

Face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold for nearly two years, despite US pressure on both sides.

The last round of direct talks collapsed when Israel launched a devastating three-week offensive in Gaza in December 2008 in a bid to halt rocket fire from the enclave ruled by the militant Hamas movement.

Palestinian leaders, headed by Abbas, meanwhile were to discuss on Friday evening the expected call from the Middle East Quartet to renew direct talks with Israel, negotiator Saeb Erakat said.

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation was set to meet in the West Bank city of Ramallah at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT), Erakat told AFP.

“It is premature to announce a Palestinian position” before the gathering of the PLO’s top executive body, he said.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas have visited Washington in recent months for talks with Obama, with the White House urging a speedy return to direct negotiations.

The two sides have accused each other of stymying direct talks, but both parties agreed, albeit reluctantly, to indirect “proximity” talks that began in May, facilitated by Mitchell.