The Arab League on Saturday gave its backing to indirect Palestinian-Israeli peace talks being pushed by Washington, but also said it doubts the Jewish state’s commitment to the process.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told a Cairo news conference that a final decision to resume indirect talks with Israel will be taken by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.
He spoke after a committee meeting in Egypt of the league, attended by 11 Arab foreign ministers. Syria’s foreign minister was absent, but Damascus was represented by its ambassador to Cairo.
Erakat warned, however, that any Israeli construction in the disputed east Jerusalem neighborhood that first torpedoed earlier planned proximity talks will stop the Palestinians from indirectly negotiating.
“If they build one unit out of the 1,600, we will not go to the talks,” he said of Israeli plans to build more settler homes in the holy city.
In March the Palestinians, with Arab backing, reluctantly agreed to indirect US-brokered talks for a period of four months, but those plans collapsed days later when Israel said during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden that it would build 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem.
The announcement infuriated the United States and the international community.
The Arab League decision to endorse so-called proximity talks was taken by the committee of foreign ministers after “guarantees” by US President Barack Obama in a letter to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
“Despite the lack of conviction of the Israeli side in achieving peace, the committee affirms what was agreed on the 2nd of March 2010 in regards to the time period for the indirect negotiations,” the statement said.
It was referring to a decision, taken before the Israeli settlements announcement, by Arab foreign ministers to back one last round of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians within a four-month deadline.
But on Saturday the committee insisted that the indirect talks should “not be immediately succeeded by direct talks,” the League statement said.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told a news conference that the time period for indirect talks was two months, by when their usefulness would be assessed.
“If these negotiations go well, we will extend the period.” He also said he believed the talks would begin “in the coming days.”
“We do not trust Israel, and we said that before. We have found positive indicators from the US mediator. We are now talking with the US mediator, and we are giving these extensions to the US mediator.”
On Friday, after a visit to the region by US President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected the Israelis and Palestinians to begin indirect talks next week.
Direct talks, which were launched in the last year of president George W. Bush’s administration, collapsed after Israel launched a brief but deadly offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008, just before Obama assumed office.
Saturday’s League statement said it reaffirmed that the negotiations must “demand a complete end to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem.”
It added that it will take steps to refer “illegal Israeli measures in Jerusalem and occupied lands to the International Court of Justice.”