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Breakthrough? Abbas gets Arab backing to enter Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas won Arab League backing today to enter direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – a step the US and Israel have been pushing for.

By Correspondent / July 29, 2010

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, center and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa attend an Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Arab league headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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Jerusalem

Setting the stage for the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel, the Arab League agreed in principle today to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas holding face-to-face peace talks with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The decision of the Arab League's forum on Israeli-Palestinian talks is significant because it provides political cover for Mr. Abbas, who has been locked in a battle for legitimacy with Islamists from Hamas who oppose negotiations with Israel.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told Reuters "of course there is agreement'' in the Arab League for direct talks. The statement represents a victory for the Obama administration's effort to lobby the Palestinians for face-to-face negotiations, warning them that without such an agreement the US could not help Palestinians secure an eventual peace deal.

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Arab governments "gave [Abbas] a mandate," says Munther Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "They gave the legitimacy he needs and the support by saying, 'Go ahead, you are not alone, we support you."

"Arab governments are under the impression that the Americans are serious this time," he adds. "Most of them are pro-American and they want to see the US involved in the negotiations.''

Letter from Obama allays concerns

After three months of indirect "proximity talks'' the peace process seems stalemated. Abbas has been demanding an Israeli halt on building in the West Bank as a precondition to upgrading to direct talks. Israeli cabinet ministers, by contrast, say that the governments 10 month moratorium on new construction won't be renewed.

The Palestinians also want a deadline for talks with Israel and a commitment that the negotiations will resume where the negotiations with the previous Israeli administration left off.

A recent letter from President Barack Obama to the Palestinians and Arab governments have allayed some of the Palestinians' concerns but not all of them, says Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority.

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