JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - An Israeli cabinet minister said on Thursday that U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinians could begin next week.
The assessment was not immediately confirmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who disagree on the terms for reviving direct diplomacy which stalled almost three years ago.
After months of intensive and discreet mediation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that the groundwork had been laid for new talks and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were due in Washington soon.
Israel was ready to go, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom said at a regional cooperation conference in the occupied West Bank.
“As I understand, today, I think that the Palestinians will decide to come next week,” Shalom told reporters in English.
“But of course it’s not something that I can speak on behalf of the Palestinians,” he said. “If they will do so, as I said, the negotiations will start next Tuesday in Washington.”
Israel says new peacemaking would be without preconditions about the borders of a future Palestinian state in territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. But the Palestinians say they want assurances about those borders first.
Netanyahu’s office had no comment on Shalom’s remarks. An Israeli source briefed on Kerry’s brokering mission said Netanyahu awaited an official invitation from the United States to send his delegation.
The conservative prime minister plans to win over ministers from his rightist coalition government who are skeptical about the prospect of new peacemaking when they convene at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, aides said.
Abbas also had yet to receive a U.S. invitation, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said.
“The Palestinian delegation is ready,” he told Reuters. “We are committed to the meeting that was agreed to be held in Washington to discuss the issues.”
Abbas’ administration sees the planned meeting as a chance to pursue his demand that any peace talks be predicated on a future Palestinian state having borders approximating the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
That appeared to run counter to a U.S. descriptions of the meeting as the re-launch of peacemaking.
Hanan Ashrawi of Abbas’ umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization said in a statement that Israel must stop its settlement of the West Bank and adjacent East Jerusalem.
Israel, which wants to keep swathes of settlements under any eventual peace accord, has refused to embrace the 1967 borders formula or halt construction ahead of the new negotiations.
In remarks the seemed close to Israel’s position, a Western official briefed on Kerry’s mission said on Sunday: “There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the ‘67 lines will be the basis for negotiations.”
Meeting Israeli military conscripts near Tel Aviv on Thursday, Netanyahu placed the peace onus on the Palestinians.
“You need two to tango. In the Middle East, it seems, you need three to tango,” he said. “Let’s hope that they (Palestinians) have the desire and demonstrate the aspiration, the goal-oriented drive, which is crucial in order to achieve an objective like a secure peace.”
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle