Biden Arrives in Israel, Amid Signs of Peace Process Renewal

By Barak Ravid (Haaretz)

Published March 08, 2010.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Israel on Monday afternoon, to deliver a message to the Israeli public about U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian nuclear program and the Middle East peace process.

The vice president’s visit comes a day after the PLO’s executive committee approved a proposal allowing the Palestinian president to begin indirect negotiations with Israel through U.S. mediation, effectively ending a 14-month breakdown in communications between the two sides.

Palestinian officials warned, however, that they would walk away if the outlines of a border deal with Israel have not emerged after four months. They also ruled out subsequent direct talks without a complete Israeli settlement construction freeze.

U.S. special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, arrived in Israel over the weekend for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in effort to see negotiations relaunched.

Mitchell held a four-hour meeting in Jerusalem with Netanyahu on Sunday. The two will meet again on Monday, after which Mitchell will head off to Ramallah to for talks with Abbas.

“If there is a desire to get to direct talks through a corridor then I think the sooner the better,” Netanyahu, referring to U.S.-mediated “proximity talks”, told reporters at the start of his meeting with Mitchell.

Mitchell said he hoped for a “credible, serious, constructive process” leading to comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

A brief statement issued by Netanyahu’s spokesman after the session said the Israeli leader and Mitchell “had a good conversation … on moving the diplomatic process forward”. The statement did not reveal whether the two had reached an agreement on the tangible resumption of talks, which the United States has offered to mediate.

Both the PLO and the Arab League have expressed skepticism about Israel’s intentions, but said they want to give U.S. mediation a chance.

Renewed talks would mark U.S. President Barack Obama’s first success in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In coming months, Mitchell is expected to shuttle between Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah and Netanyahu’s office a half hour away in Jerusalem.

The Palestinians broke off the talks when Israel launched its offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 to stop daily rocket fire from the coastal territory.

Netanyahu has said he prefers direct peace talks, but would accept mediated negotiations.

For more than a year, the Obama administration has been laboring to get both sides negotiating again, disappointed to discover that its plan to fast-track peacemaking would be frustrated by deeply rooted conflicts and domestic politics.

The U.S.-mediated talks are expected to focus on guidelines for discussing the key issues that have divided Israelis and Palestinians for decades: final borders, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees, and a resolution to the rival claims to Jerusalem.



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