Abbas resists US pressure for immediate talks with Israel

Arab nations yesterday backed the Palestinian President's refusal to immediately restart direct talks with Israel despite heavy US 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 US and the Europeans have been pushing a reluctant Mr Abbas to rejoin 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," said Mr Thani.

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

Mr 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.

A leaked Palestinian document this week revealed that US peace envoy George Mitchell warned Mr Abbas that if he does not agree to direct talks, Mr 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 US mediation, specifically movement on the issue of borders for a future Palestinian state. He has also called for a halt to settlement building.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem.

"The issue of settlements, along with all the other core issues... should be discussed in the negotiations," Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said yesterday.