The prospects for the first negotiations involving Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership for over a year have increased after the nations of the Arab League gave qualified support to a US proposal for indirect talks between both sides.
The decision by Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday gives the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas political cover to enter "proximity" talks – in which the US would shuttle between the two sides – despite Palestinian and wider Arab scepticism over Israel's willingness to advance a genuine peace process.
The move was welcomed yesterday by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told the Knesset: "It seems that the conditions are ripening for the renewal of negotiations between us and the Palestinians."
It was a measure of the tortuous and hitherto fruitless efforts to bring the two sides together that yesterday's move by the Arab League was being seen as a potentially significant turning point. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was "very pleased" by the decision and hoped talks would begin "soon".
A statement endorsed at the meeting of 14 Arab states – with Syria's the main dissenting voice – backed the proximity talks as a "last ditch" effort to "facilitate" the US role in seeking to broker a peace deal. But it warned that they should be limited to four months in duration and should not automatically lead to direct talks.
Mr Abbas has refused to enter direct negotiations with Mr Netanyahu without the total settlement freeze originally demanded by Washington. Mr Netanyahu eventually agreed to halt new construction in the settlements for 10 months but not to stop work on building already deemed to be under way or to apply a freeze to East Jerusalem.
The US has since been pressing an at least initially reluctant Mr Abbas to agree to the indirect talks – in which President Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to act as the mediator – as a means of breaking the deadlock.
But although Mr Abbas has also been under pressure from Egypt to enter the talks, he has made it clear he would not take sole responsibility for doing so. He is thought to have sought the Arab League's support as a precondition for yielding to the pressure to begin the "proximity" process.
One Western diplomat said yesterday that the Arab League's position went further than expected in its support for the indirect negotiations by explicitly endorsing them – albeit with caveats – rather than simply leaving the choice up to the Palestinians.
Although talks between Mr Abbas and the previous Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made more progress than anticipated, they were broken off when Mr Olmert's government launched its three-week military offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza in the winter of 2008-9.
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister, interrupted the Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa while he was reading out the statement in Cairo, declaring 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.
Mr Netanyahu insisted at the Knesset that "we are not the obstacle. I've said it takes two to tango in the Middle East. But it might take three, and initially, we might need a shuttle mission." He added, in an apparent reference to the partial settlement freeze: "The world understands – and how – that this government wants negotiations and has taken steps, not simple ones, to promote talks."
The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Arab states were not "convinced by Israeli intentions" but backed the US idea. If the talks failed to produce results there would be a further meeting of the League to assess developments.
Significantly Mr Moussa said a failure of the talks would prompt Arab states to seek an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In a paper distributed in December, Dr Erekat canvassed – among a series of other possible international initiatives – four alternative forms of UN Security Council decision, all of which would require US support.
The most dramatic would afford full recognition to a Palestinian state, while a second would set the negotiating parameters for such a state, including a basis of Israel's 1967 borders. A third would endorse the Arab Peace Initiative, which promises pan-Arab recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state on 1967 borders "and/or" to reaffirm UN resolution 242, which originally called for an end to the occupation after the 1967 Six Day War. And the fourth would reaffirm the 2003 Road Map, emphasising Israel's obligation to freeze settlement construction. But in the event of failure to secure a two-state solution, the Erekat paper mentions the possible option of dissolving the Palestinian Authority, ending the Oslo accords and seeking a bi-national state.
Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, rejected the Arab League's decision. Its Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the Islamist movement "would not give any... permission to return to negotiations, whether direct or indirect, considering what is happening in... Jerusalem and Hebron."
Room for manoeuvre: How the diplomacy will work
What are proximity talks?
One in which the two sides do not meet but only engage through third-party mediators, led in this case by George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's envoy and the American who played the biggest role in the Northern Ireland peace process. If the term is applied literally, they would take place with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the same building for ease of shuttling between them.
Mahmoud Abbas failed to get the total settlement freeze he wanted as a precondition of entering full negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu. Indirect talks are a US compromise designed to get interaction going without putting the two teams together. This way too, Mr Abbas avoids the kind of cosy handshake photo opportunities with Mr Netanyahu that his critics, including Hamas, can mock him for. Plus they meet a central requirement of the Palestinians: namely that the United States is "in the room" for the talks – or actually in each room in turn.
Could this lead to direct talks?
Not necessarily. Indeed yesterday's Arab League statement said they should not automatically do so. Mr Netanyahu's present positions, for example on keeping Jerusalem as a unified Israeli capital, and a continuing presence in the Jordan Valley, fall well short of Palestinian requirements of a state. If indirect talks do not exceed expectations, negotiations could actually be broken off by the Palestinians in July leaving a range of possibilities from diplomatic efforts in the UN to a dangerous vacuum.