US envoy visits Israel for 'indirect' negotiations

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President Barack Obama's Middle East peace envoy arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday for expected indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks but Israel voiced doubt about any breakthrough without direct negotiations.

Hours before the US envoy, George Mitchell, flew into Israel, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, conferred in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh about the upcoming US-mediated negotiations. Mr Obama's peace efforts received a boost on Saturday when Arab states approved four months of "proximity talks", whose expected start in March was delayed by Israel's announcement of a settlement project on occupied land near Jerusalem.

An Israeli Defence Ministry strategist Amos Gilad said on Israel Radio that the indirect negotiations would begin on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear when the envoy would hold talks with the Palestinian side. The executive committee of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to meet only on Saturday to give the formal nod to start the negotiations.

The Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor described indirect talks as "a strange affair" after face-to-face peace negotiations stretching back 16 years.

There have been no direct talks for the past 18 months, a period that has included Israel's Gaza war, the election of a right-wing Israeli government and entrenched rule in the Gaza Strip by Hamas Islamists opposed to the US peace efforts.

"I think it is clear to everyone that real talks are direct talks, and I don't think there is a chance of a significant breakthrough until the direct talks begin," Mr Meridor said.

"The talks will be held. The envoy, Mr Mitchell, will talk to us, to them. But the more we hasten to arrive at direct talks, the more we will be able to address the heart of the matter."

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Mr Abbas, said the negotiations would show whether the Israeli government was serious about peace and "test the sincerity" of the Obama administration in pursuing Palestinian statehood.

"The truth is we are not in need of negotiations. We are in need of decisions by the Israeli government. This is the time for decisions more than it is the time for negotiations," Mr Rdainah said.

In an interview published on Sunday in the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, Mr Abbas said Mr Obama had given a commitment he would not allow "any provocative measures" by either side. Mr Abbas has long insisted Israel freeze Jewish settlement building before any negotiations resume, and he had rejected as insufficient a temporary construction moratorium that Mr Netanyahu ordered in the occupied West Bank last November.