Washington to host Middle East peace talks next month

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The Independent Online

The Obama administration yesterday called an Israeli-Palestinian summit in Washington on 2 September to kick-start direct peace negotiations which the international community insisted "can be completed within a year".

The move concludes months of – in the end – irresistible international pressure on the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to the first face-to-face political talks with Israel for more than 18 months.

Mr Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are expected to attend the launch by the US President of the negotiations, which have the explicit, if dauntingly ambitious, aim of ending the 43-year-old Israeli occupation and ushering in a Palestinian state. A delicately choreographed series of statements by the main parties last night followed weeks of diplomatic horse-trading designed to satisfy the requirements of Mr Abbas without confronting Israel with what it claimed were unacceptable "preconditions" for the talks.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, acknowledged the manifold obstacles facing the negotiations, declaring: "There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region."

Amid widespread Palestinian pessimism over whether talks with Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Israeli government could bear fruit, Mr Abbas had long been arguing for the present partial freeze on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank to be extended beyond its September deadline.

At the same time, the Palestinian President had been seeking explicit "parameters" for the talks – including a stipulation that a future two-state solution to the conflict should be based on Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Last night, the Palestinian leadership accepted the invitation to talks but warned their participation depended on Israel not announcing any new settlement building. After a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee in Ramallah, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said: "If the Israeli government decides to announce new tenders on 26 September, then we won't be able to continue with the talks."

The new Quartet statement does not itself refer to the settlements issue, but instead reaffirms the Quartet's "full commitment" to statements made at its Moscow and Trieste meetings earlier this year. The Moscow statement repeated earlier calls – reaffirmed by the US presidential envoy George Mitchell yesterday – for Israel to freeze all settlement activity, dismantle settlement outposts erected since 2001, and refrain from house demolitions in Arab East Jerusalem. The talks will exclude Hamas, which retains control of Gaza and which has repeatedly opposed Mr Abbas's entering direct negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu last night welcomed the invitation to Washington, where President Obama will hold one-to-one talks with the leaders before holding a dinner to which Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Quartet envoy Tony Blair have also been invited.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel had been calling for talks for a year and a half and was pleased they would be "without preconditions". Mr Erekat had earlier said the Quartet statement "contains the elements needed to provide for a peace agreement".

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