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Middle East

Israel and Palestinians poised for direct talks

The first direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for more than 18 months were in prospect last night after successful diplomatic efforts to find a formula designed to allow the talks to start.

The international Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia is expected to issue a statement today paving the way for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to open political negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A draft of the statement is understood to say that direct bilateral negotiations which "can be completed within one year" should resolve "all the core issues dividing the two sides and should "lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation... and results in a [Palestinian] state at peace with Israel".

The Quartet statement is intended to provide Mr Abbas with the internationally endorsed political cover he has been seeking to enter the talks. Mr Abbas had been seeking an affirmation that the talks would be based on Israel's pre-1967 borders and that it would continue not to build in Jewish West Bank settlements after the present partial freeze on settlement building ends late next month.

The statement will not specifically articulate those points but will make clear its "full commitment to its previous statements" – including those at its meetings in Moscow and Trieste in March and June of this year. The Moscow statement made clear that the negotiations should end "the occupation began in 1967" and repeated earlier calls for Israel to freeze all settlement activity, dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001, and refrain from house demolitions and evictions in Arab East Jerusalem.

The delicate construction of the statement is designed to meet Mr Abbas's demands without making newly explicit what Israel has been arguing would be unacceptable "preconditions" for the negotiations. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian sources commented on the imminent developments yesterday, with an Israeli official simply reiterating that the government had repeatedly called for direct talks to start.

Earlier yesterday the US State Department spokesman P J Crowley said: "We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to enter into direct negotiations. We think we're well positioned to get there."

Mr Crowley said that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had called the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, late in the day yesterday and also spoken with the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, and the former British prime minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet".

While today's expected move is a breakthrough in the long and tortuous "talks about talks" that have taken place since the indirect "proximity" negotiations mediated by the US Presidential envoy George Mitchell began earlier this year, there remains scepticism in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories that even direct negotiations will have the positive outcome envisaged in the Quartet draft.

There is uncertainty about whether Mr Netanyahu is seriously prepared to make concessions on the core issues – including the future status of Jerusalem, the Eastern sector of which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state but which Israel regards as under its own sovereignty. However the statement from the Quartet meeting in March of this year explicitly recalled that "the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognised by the international community".

Public pessimism appears to be increasingly shared by US voters, according to a new poll for the Israel Project published yesterday. Only 45 per cent of Americans surveyed in the July poll said they felt Mr Netanyahu was committed to the peace process. Only 51 per cent of Americans thought the US needed to support Israel, compared with 63 per cent a year ago.