US Vice-President Joe Biden will arrive in Israel today following a formal decision by the West Bank Palestinian leadership to approve Washington's proposal for indirect peace negotiations with Israel.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation gave President Mahmoud Abbas a mandate to take part in the talks – the first with Israel for over a year – while warning that without real progress to a deal on borders they would pull out of the negotiations after four months.
With both US presidential envoy George Mitchell – who will shuttle between the two sides during the process – and Mr Biden in the region, a more detailed timetable for the talks is likely to emerge this week. The Palestinian negotiators have so far ruled out direct talks without the full freeze on settlement construction that had been sought by Washington.
Part of Mr Biden's purpose in talks with Israeli leaders has been widely reported to be to urge Israel not to contemplate an Israeli military strike on Iran while President Obama continues to try for more stringent international sanctions to press Tehran to abandon its perceived military nuclear ambitions.
But the Vice President, the highest ranking US official to visit Israel since President Obama took office, will also meet Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders in Ramallah during his three-day visit. Yesterday's PLO decision was expected after the heavily qualified approval given to the talks by the Arab League in Cairo last week.
There have been indications from the administration that it is ready to apportion blame for any failure to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. At the same time, low expectations for the outcome were underlined by an internal Israeli Foreign Ministry paper assessing that the Middle East will be a relatively low priority for Washington in the run-up to November's mid-term Congressional elections. The paper, leaked to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, says that in preparatory discussions for the so-called "proximity talks" US officials took positions closer to Palestinian requirements than to Israel's. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been demanding that the Palestinians explicitly recognise Israel as a "Jewish state", has continued to affirm his opposition to the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital – regarded as a sine qua non by Palestinian negotiators – and envisages a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.
But the document also suggests that the US administration will avoid taking any position that suggests disagreement with Israel because of the support that Israel enjoys in Congress. The unspoken implication is that that will be particularly true as President Obama seeks to prevent heavy Republican gains in the mid-term elections.
The talks co-incide with an increase in grass-roots protests by some Palestinians, partly exacerbated by the inclusion of religious shrines in two West Bank cities, Hebron and Bethlehem, in a list of Jewish heritage sites published by Mr Netanyahu.
A 14-year-old boy Ehab Fadel Barghouthi was still critically ill yesterday after being shot by border police with a rubber-coated bullet that penetrated his skull during an anti-settlement protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh on Friday. Eyewitnesses say he was shot at a range of around 20 metres during stone-throwing incidents.
And the Palestinian Authority has protested at the military detention of a 13-year-old boy Hasan El-Muhtaseb for six days for allegedly throwing stones during protests in Hebron. A military court yesterday released the boy on a £875 surety.
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