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US invites leaders to direct talks

Aug. 20, 2010 4:23 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 22, 2010 9:53 A.M.)
WASHINGTON (Ma'an) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have been invited to begin direct peace talks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Friday.

At a special press briefing in Washington, Clinton invited the two leaders to restart talks in a trilateral session hosted by US President Barack Obama on 2 September in Washington.

During a question and answer session US Envoy to the Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said "we have been in consultation with both, and expect to hear from them shortly, but it will be their decisions whether to accept."

Netanyahu accepted the invitation Friday evening and said he was "pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions."

PLO negotiations chief Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian leadership welcomed the move, but there has yet to be an official response to the invitation from the Palestinian Authority. The PLO Executive committee were scheduled to meet at 8:30 p.m. in Ramallah.

Palestinian National Initiative leader and former presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouthi said the move was an acceptance of Israeli demands, and called the US move "shameful."

Talks to incorporate regional leaders

Clinton reportedly consulted with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Thursday night, and spoke with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Friday morning about restarting negotiations. Both were invited to attend a dinner in Washington on 1 September to mark the opening of the talks. British Quartet Envoy Tony Blair was also invited to the dinner.

Mitchell said the location and timing of the talks would be determined by leaders during the first round in Washington.

The talks should take place "without preconditions," Clinton said during her brief statement, and will aim to "resolve all final-status issues, which we believe can be completed in one year." Mitchell added later that "all permanent status issues would be on the table."

Final status issues include the borders of a Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees.

"There have been difficulties in the past, there will be difficulties ahead. .. 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," Clinton said.

When asked what role Hamas would play in the talks, Mitchell answered "none."

The Secretary's announcement was followed by a statement of support from the Middle East Quartet.

Quartet calls for talks based on 1967 borders

"The Quartet reaffirms its full commitment to its previous statements," the document said, and quoted the 19 March statement, which called for direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues and should "lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors."

On 10 August, Abbas had suggested to Mitchell that talks go forward based on that statement, but Netanyahu had refused the plan, saying it came with too many "preconditions."

The Quartet statement said officials from the body, made up of US, EU, UN and Russian officials, will meet with representatives from the Arab League in New York in September "to review the situation," after noting that peace would require regional efforts and citing the Arab Peace Initiative.

PLO to meet in Ramallah

A PLO Executive Committee meeting was scheduled for 8.30 p.m. Friday to discuss the invitation.

The talks will be the first face-to-face negotiations in almost two years. Previous negotiations broke down when Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead offensive on Gaza in December 2008.

Abbas has been under intense US-led pressure to resume direct talks. The Palestinian leader sought guarantees that Israel is a serious partner for peace, and demanded an end to illegal settlement construction on land which would be a future Palestinian state, as well as a clear agenda for talks.

The talks were set to resume weeks before a temporary freeze on illegal settlement expansion expires. Netanyahu has so far refused to extend the partial freeze, and a return to full-scale settlement construction could derail negotiations.

While the one-year timeframe may offer Abbas some reassurance, Palestinian factions have expressed reservations that talks merely provide a cover under which Israel can continue to violate Palestinians’ rights, pointing to the erosion of Palestinian rights under all previous negotiations.

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