Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Arab ministers back new Israel-Palestinian peace talks

Mahmoud Abbas (c) discusses peace talks with Arab foreign ministers
Mahmoud Abbas says he accepts the foreign ministers' decision

Arab foreign ministers have agreed to back the resumption of indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks, which could see fresh negotiations soon.

The move was quickly welcomed by the Israelis and comes after months of separate negotiations between the US and both sides.

But speaking at a meeting in Cairo, the foreign ministers said there must be a four-month time limit to the talks.

Talks between the two sides have been stalled for more than a year.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would accept the decision of the Arab foreign ministers and the principle of indirect talks.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation must now agree to the proposal for it to go ahead. The organisation is due to meet at the end of this week.

Time limit

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the move was welcome.

Paul Wood
Paul Wood, BBC News, Jerusalem

It was Mr Abbas who called for this meeting and it has now given him the desired result. He leaves Cairo with a face-saving measure to extricate himself from a position he had put himself in (with a little help from the White House, which has also caved in to Israel on the settlement issue).

This may help him in particular with public opinion in the West Bank, but Mr Abbas has still been left looking pretty weak by what is in reality a U-turn. It comes about after pressure from the US, Egypt and Jordan for some kind of talks to restart.

These will be so-called proximity talks - indirect negotiations. They will probably involve a US mediator shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials are not optimistic. They say there has in effect already been a year of shuttle diplomacy with the US special envoy George Mitchell's efforts to restart the peace process.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu has been calling for the resumption of talks for some time and we hope now the talks can move forward," he said.

But the Arab foreign ministers said there should be a limited timeframe for the talks to be held to prevent them stalling.

"The committee [of foreign ministers] does not object to indirect negotiations and, if nothing is achieved four months from now, the issue will be taken to the UN Security Council," Syrian ambassador to the Arab League, Yusef Ahmed said.

A Palestinian spokesman said that direct talks between the two sides were still not an option.

The issues of the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and who will control East Jerusalem have proved stumbling blocks.

The Palestinians have demanded a complete halt to settlement building, the Israeli prime minister has promised a 10-month pause in building.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, but the Israeli government says Jerusalem is "eternal and indivisible".

Peace talks broke down after the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip between December 2008 and January 2009.

The attempt to restart what are known as "proximity talks" has been driven by the US, whose envoy, former senator George Mitchell, has visited the Middle East many times in the past year.

In recent weeks Palestinian leaders have increased their condemnation of Israel following an announcement that the Israeli government would list two West Bank shrines as "Israeli heritage sites".

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