CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League said on Thursday it would back face-to-face peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel when the Palestinians believe the time is right.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, facing U.S. pressure to agree to such talks, has said he first wants progress in U.S.-mediated, indirect negotiations that began two months ago with the Arab League’s blessing.
Abbas briefed the Arab League’s peace process committee in Cairo on Thursday about the indirect talks, which will end in September according to a timeframe set by the League.
President Barack Obama said earlier this month he hopes direct talks will begin by September, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is ready for such talks immediately, putting the spotlight on Abbas.
Knocking the ball back into the U.S. court, senior Palestinian officials said their decision would depend on the U.S. response to Palestinian concerns, to be laid out in a letter the Arab League had decided to send to Obama.
“There is a green light from the Arabs to go to direct negotiations if we receive terms of reference (for the negotiations) in line with the letter,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide, told Reuters.
In Washington, the State Department said the White House would carefully study ideas in the letter to Obama. “Ultimately, the parties themselves have to agree that ... they feel that there is the basis to move forward in direct negotiations,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
“We feel the time is right. We hope to have these negotiations begin quite soon, but obviously there are still decisions to be made. We hope those decisions will be made soon,” he added.
Abbas, his credibility damaged by the failure of past negotiations, is keeping Israel at arm’s length until it makes clear the size and shape of the Palestinian state that Netanyahu is prepared to consider.
He also wants Israeli agreement in principle to the idea of a third party, NATO for example, guarding the frontiers of the state the Palestinians aim to establish alongside Israel on land it occupied since a 1967 Middle East war.
Abbas, 75, doubts Netanyahu is willing to make peace on terms the Palestinians can accept.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, speaking to journalists after the process committee meeting, said the Arab League would agree to direct talks when Abbas believed conditions were right.
Responding to the Arab League statement, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement he was “ready to begin direct and honest talks with the Palestinian Authority already in the coming days”.
“The prime minister added that in direct negotiations it is possible to reach a peace agreement soon,” it added.
U.S. efforts are complicated further by the scheduled end of a 10-month, partial Israeli freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank — part of the territories where the Palestinians aim to found their state.
Netanyahu, who leads a cabinet including pro-settler parties, has voiced reluctance to extend the moratorium.
Avigdor Lieberman, his foreign minister, said on Wednesday there was “no place for any moratorium after 25 September”.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed in Cairo; Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp