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.
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.
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.
"Apparently the American letter has addressed part of the concerns,'' said Khatib. "The letter helped, it didn't address all the concerns.''
Are Israeli lawmakers undermining Netanyahu?
Back in February, the Arab League agreed to indirect talks to be reviewed after four months. Though the agreement to direct talks only in principle, both Dajani and Khatib said it represents an easing of the Arab League's initial skepticism.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the organization is still looking for "written guarantees'' on settlements. Abbas told the forum that he would agree to direct talks once he gets assurances on building and using the 1967 West Bank border as a basis for talks.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the state-run radio sparked a political controversy when it reported that a top-ranking member of the opposition Kadima party, Haim Ramon, tried to dissuade top Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat from renewing talks with the current government.
The report seemed to echo an accusation made by Netanyahu earlier in the week that some Israelis are trying to undermine his effort to push for direct talks. Both Ramon and Erekat denied the report.
A Palestinian decision to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians would help ease Israel's increasing diplomatic isolation since Netanyahu took office.