Palestinians and Israelis start talks

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The Independent Online

The Palestinians yesterday announced the official start of indirect peace talks with Israel after a 17-month breakdown, while Israel's leader urged a quick transition to face-to-face negotiations.

Over the next four months, the US Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, will shuttle between the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to try to narrow vast differences on the terms of Palestinian statehood.

The indirect talks mark the Obama administration's first concrete achievement in Mideast peace efforts. However, expectations are low and the shuttle format looks like a step backward, following some 16 years of direct, if intermittent, negotiations.

Mr Mitchell's mission was devised to get around a deadlock over Israeli settlement construction. Mr Abbas has said he will not negotiate directly without a settlement freeze, but Israel only agreed to a temporary slowdown.

Over the past five days, Mr Mitchell has met twice with Mr Netanyahu and three times with Mr Abbas in final preparations for the talks. On Saturday the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Mr Abbas' Fatah movement endorsed the negotiations. After an Abbas-Mitchell meeting on Sunday, the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that "the proximity talks have started".

Mr Netanyahu said indirect talks must lead to direct negotiations as quickly as possible. "Peace can't be made from a distance or by remote control," he said. "Over time one cannot assume that that we will reach decisions and agreements on critical issues such as security and our national interests and their interests if we don't sit in the same room."