Indirect Middle East Talks Begin

Israelis and Palestinians have begun indirect peace talks, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, says.

He made the announcement after a meeting on Sunday between George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in Ramallah in the occupied Palestinian territory of West Bank.

"I can officially declare today that the proximity talks have begun," Erekat said.

Mitchell will orchestrate the planned four-month indirect talks in the form of shuttle diplomacy between Israel, Palestinian territories and US.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said peace with the Palestinians would be impossible without direct negotiations and he called for a swift move from the US-mediated indirect talks to face-to-face contacts.

"The proximity talks must bring about direct talks soon. Peace cannot be brought about from a distance, or with a remote control," Netanyahu told his cabinet in public remarks on Sunday.

Mitchell held talks on Friday with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, who said his country was ready to negotiate with the Palestinians.

The developments come amid a statement by Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, said that Syria too is ready to restart indirect peace talks with Israel.

He said on Saturday that Turkey would do the mediation.

PLO Backing

Officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Fatah, the party led by Abbas, have given their backing to the indirect talks in an effort to break a diplomatic deadlock.

"The Palestinian leadership has approved the proximity talks," Jibril Rajoub, a leading Fatah member, said after a PLO meeting on Saturday.

But the decision followed "indecision and dissent", Al Jazeera’s Nour Odeh, reporting from Ramallah, said.

"There was disagreement during the discussions but once the decision was taken to move ahead, it became the official Palestinian position," she said.

"[However], a variance in positions and perspectives of different political factions is not unusual in the Palestinian political system."

The talks also faced opposition in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas, the Palestinian group which governs the Palestinian enclave, called on the PLO to reject the resumption of talks, dismissing them as "absurd".

"We warn the executive of PLO not to take any decision to resume talks with the enemy and to give cover to the Israeli occupation to commit more crimes against our people," Hamas said in a statement.

Our correspondent said: "Hamas, which has not participated in these inter-Palestinian discussions, has regretted the PLO executive committee decision and has said that this will only serve to provide the Israelis with cover while they continue to confiscate more land for the purposes of illegal settlements."

Khalil Shaheen, a political analyst in the West Bank, said the Palestinian people do not consider the PLO-Fatah meeting to be representative of all Palestinians.

"Take into consideration that Hamas is not a member of the PLO and we have some factions on the left that are against and reject direct or indirect negotiations," he told Al Jazeera.

"For the Palestinians, they are more concerned about the coming change in [the Palestinian] government more than they are concerned about negotiations that will not bring them any breakthrough towards establishing their own Palestinian state."

Settlement Activity

Negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel have been stalled since Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip began in December 2008.

Attempts to restart the stalled process in March collapsed when Israel announced construction of a new housing project in occupied East Jerusalem,which Palestinians see as the future capital of any independent state.

The Palestinians have said they want the indirect talks to focus on the final borders of their future state.

Netanyahu announced a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank in November.

Abbas’s timetable for indirect talks will roughly coincide with the end of that freeze.

Israeli officials have said repeatedly that they will not approve another halt in construction, regardless of what happens during negotiations.

(Al Jazeera and Agencies)

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