The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) formally announced on Sunday the start of indirect peace talks with Israel's right-wing government, ending a 17-month hiatus that followed the 2009 election that brought to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks will be mediated by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who will shuttle between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's government.
The PLO's Executive Committee, the body that oversees peace talks, approved a return to negotiations on Saturday despite deep seated skepticism fanned by Israeli expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In four months, the talks will be reassessed.
The Palestinians want Israel to negotiate on "substantive" final-status issues like East Jerusalem, a mutual border, and the fate of Palestinian refugees, said Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
The Palestinians also want to see "whether there is progress or whether there is stalling, or wasting time" on secondary issues, he said.
He added that the Palestinians will looking to see whether Israel decides on any new settlement expansion.
Netanyahu wants direct talks
Mr. Netanyahu welcomed the Palestinian decision, but added that there is a limit to how far indirect negotiations can go. Israel wants to a move to direct talks as soon as possible, he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
"Peace cannot be made from a distance or by remote control," Mr. Netanyahu said. "Over time, it is inconceivable that we will make decisions and agreements on critical issues such as security and our national interests, and theirs as well, without sitting together in the same room.''
Israel has said that it wants to focus first on guarantees that the future Palestinian state will be demilitarized, and reducing Palestinian "incitement" against the Jewish state.
The Palestinians approved indirect two months ago, but balked during the March visit of Vice President Joe Biden when Israel announced a building plan for 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.
A minor victory for Obama
The resumption of talks marks a minor victory for President Obama, who has made advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks a priority but has enjoyed little success until now.
To lure the Palestinians back to the table, the US reportedly told the Palestinian leaders privately that Israel would face consequences if there are provocative expansions of Jewish settlements.
The Palestinians are hoping that the Obama administration mediation efforts will prod Israel into concessions.
"The Palestinians were pressured into talks," says Mohammed Dajan, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. "If this process succeeds, the Obama administration will have to pressure both sides – also the Arab states – because there is a price to be paid by everyone."