PLO approves talks with Israel as Mitchell meets Netanyahu

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) move to allow indirect talks with Israel clears the way for the first negotiations in more than a year ahead of Vice President Joseph Biden's arrival in the region later this week.

Moshe Milner/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hand with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday. A skeptical PLO agreed Sunday to begin U.S.-mediated peace talks with Israel, effectively ending a 14-month breakdown in communications between the two sides.

The highest Palestinian political body authorized President Mahmoud Abbas to begin indirect peace talks with Israel for a four-month trial period, clearing the way for the first negotiations in more than a year ahead of Vice President Joseph Biden's arrival in the region later this week.

The decision of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee effectively drops a Palestinian precondition from last year that Israel first freeze settlement activity before renewing negotiations. The shift comes in response to international pressure on the Palestinian leadership, but runs counter to widespread skepticism in the Palestinian public and exposes Mr. Abbas and his Fatah organization to criticism from political rival, Hamas.

After months of being accused by Israel as the obstacle to negotiations, the Palestinian leadership hopes that returning to the talks will shift the pressure back onto Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for concessions, said analysts.

"[Abbas] has been under tremendous pressure to find a way to get back to negotiations," says Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster based in Ramallah, West Bank. "The goal here is not to reach an agreement. I don't think the president believes there is an agreement to be reached with Netanyahu."

US steps up efforts

United States Peace Envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region over the weekend. He met Sunday with Mr. Netanyahu to discuss getting the indirect negotiations started. Mr. Mitchell is also scheduled to meet Palestinian officials, including Abbas, in the West Bank tomorrow.

Renewing peace talks has been a key foreign policy goal of the Obama administration, though efforts became bogged down last year over a US demand to halt settlement expansion. Talks on a permanent peace deal – which focus on the status of Jerusalem, borders, and Palestinian refugees – were last held at the end of 2008 and were broken off.

PLO Executive Secretary Yasser Abed Raboo told reporters in Ramallah that the talks with Israel would initially focus on reaching an agreement on a common border. Acknowledging the internal opposition to the move, he added that the Palestinians would establish a special committee to assess the progress of the talks.

“This decision by the Palestinian leadership has been taken despite rejection and skepticism of some members of the PLO Executive Committee,” he said. Israel is observing a temporary halt on building starts in the West Bank, but the policy doesn't apply to East Jerusalem. Abbas's decision to insist on the settlement halt – taking a cue from the US – won him popularity with a Palestinian public.

Do talks strengthen Abbas?

To help Abbas ease off that position, on Wednesday a group of Arab League foreign ministers recommended that the Palestinians give indirect talks a chance. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has criticized the Palestinian leadership's shift. On the other hand, the ongoing hiatus in talks ultimately undermines Abbas's advocacy of negotiations and strengthens the argument of that only armed resistance by Islamic militants against Israel will win sovereignty for the Palestinians.

Mr. Raboo called on Israel to make a series of good faith gestures to the Palestinians, such as the release of prisoners, removing roadblocks, and easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

"Abbas can say no for a little while," says Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the US Institute for Peace. "But ultimately he can't say no to an American invitation to negotiation, given his dependence on US economic aid, and given his own political platform."

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