Page last updated at 20:21 GMT, Saturday, 8 May 2010 21:21 UK

PLO leadership backs indirect peace talks with Israel

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian Authority President in Ramallah (7 May 2010)
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is in the region

Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation have given their backing to indirect peace talks with Israel.

The decision was announced after a three-hour meeting of the PLO's Executive Committee in the West Bank.

US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, arrived in the region on Monday in a bid to relaunch the so-called "proximity talks".

The Palestinians broke off direct peace talks after Israel launched a military offensive on Gaza in late 2008.

Tim Franks
By Tim Franks, BBC News, Jerusalem

The air is thick with mutual mistrust at the prospect of negotiations.

There are many Israelis who believe that the Palestinians are not sincere about talks, that the Palestinian leadership simply wants the Americans to impose a solution which meets its desires.

They also point out that the land earmarked for a Palestinian state remains politically divided between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, from where the Islamist Hamas movement is deeply hostile to this peace process.

The Palestinians, for their part, believe that this right-wing Israeli government is far from committed to the idea of a Palestinian state, and simply wants negotiations which meander on pointlessly for years.

One diplomat close to the process said that expectations were at "zero" for now. The fact that after nearly 20 years of on-off negotiations, all that was now being offered was indirect talks through the US special envoy was, he said, "a badge of how far the Americans have mismanaged the situation".

The start of indirect negotiations in March was halted after Israeli municipal authorities approved plans for the construction of new homes in a settlement in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Under the proximity talks, Mr Mitchell will shuttle between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to narrow their differences.

"As far as we are concerned, the start of the indirect negotiations can be announced today," Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said after Saturday's PLO Executive Committee meeting.

He added: "The decision is based on guarantees and assurances we have received regarding the settlement activities and the necessity to halt them... and that the US will take a decisive position toward any provocations that influence the path of negotiations."

The Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, had urged the PLO to reject the proximity talks.

"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," a statement said.

Israel welcomed the Palestinian endorsement of indirect talks

"Israel's position was and remains that the talks ought to be conducted without preconditions and should quickly lead to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

US state department spokesman PJ Crowley said it was "an important and welcome step".

Settlement issue

The Palestinians pulled out of talks in March after an announcement that Israel had approved plans for new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Osnat Schwartz, Israeli citizen

The move strained Israeli-US relations.

The Palestinian Authority's formal position is that it will not enter direct talks unless Israel completely halts building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In November, Israel announced a 10-month suspension of new building in the West Bank, under heavy US pressure.

But it considers areas within the Jerusalem municipality as its territory and thus not subject to the restrictions.

Israel has occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967. It insists Jerusalem will remain its undivided capital, although Palestinians want to establish their capital in the east of the city.

Nearly half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, among a Palestinian population of about 2.5 million.

The settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

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