JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s envoy said Palestinian and Israeli leaders agreed Monday to resume talks but, amid a new row over Jewish settlements, it was not yet clear how exactly those negotiations would proceed.
Washington voiced understanding for Palestinian anger at Israel’s disclosure it would build more than 100 new homes at one of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank which have been at the heart of President Mahmoud Abbas’s resistance for the past year to Obama’s pressure that he return to talks.
But many Israelis were less interested in the meetings peace envoy George Mitchell held with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than in the arrival of Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, and the messages he is likely to convey about the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.
While saying he wanted direct peace talks with Abbas, Netanyahu told American evangelical Christians in Jerusalem: “No security challenge is more important to our common future than preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
Biden is due to meet both Netanyahu and Abbas during the week and to show solid White House support for efforts to end a 15-month hiatus in negotiations aimed at ending six decades of conflict and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But the focus of an interview published in Israel before his arrival was a pledge that Washington, the key ally with whom Netanyahu’s year-old coalition government has had at times fraught relations, would stand by Israel.
Israeli political sources also expect Biden to make clear, as other U.S. officials have done, that Obama wants no strike on Iran, notably by Israel, while Washington seeks to curb Tehran’s nuclear program by means of sanctions. Netanyahu called again for tough sanctions to cripple Iran’s trade in oil and gas.
After meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Abbas in nearby Ramallah, Mitchell said he was pleased the two sides now agreed to hold indirect talks via U.S. mediation. However, he said, the precise nature of those talks had yet to be determined:
“We’ve begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions,” he said. “As we’ve said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible.”
Some officials, including at the U.S. State Department and the Arab League, said they understood that the “proximity talks” which were endorsed by the League last week to run for four months had already started. Other officials said that for now the mediators were discussing formats rather than substance.
Abbas’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the talks were a “last attempt” to save a 20-year-old peace process that few on either side believe shows any sign of reaching a deal.
Israelis point to powerful, hardline Hamas Islamists in Gaza and the West Bank as a reason why they cannot let Palestinians have full independence. Palestinians say Israel is playing for time to expand settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s Defence Ministry said Monday that 112 new homes to be built in the settlement of Beitar Ilit near Jerusalem were part of a continuing housing project that was not included in a partial settlement building freeze announced in November.
Erekat said the new homes were the first item Abbas raised with Mitchell: “The president said that if each round will include an announcement of settlement ... this puts a question mark over all of the efforts we are undertaking.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington accepted the Israeli argument that the Beitar Ilit building did not breach the terms of Netanyahu’s settlement moratorium. But he added: “Both sides should be cautious about actions that might be either misperceived within the region or that might be exploited by those who want to create obstacles.”
Abbas had demanded a complete halt to Israeli settlement building as a condition for resuming talks with Israel. But after months of U.S. pressure, he secured Arab League backing for a compromise whereby negotiations would start via mediators.
Biden, the most senior U.S. official to visit Israel since Obama took office last January, will meet Israel leaders on Tuesday and the Palestinian leadership Wednesday.
In an interview with the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth before leaving Washington, Biden stressed U.S. efforts to drum up greater diplomatic pressure on the Iranians, as well as unilateral measures imposed by the U.S. Treasury.
Asked about the prospect of an Israeli attack, he said:
“Though I cannot answer the hypothetical questions you raised about Iran, I can promise the Israeli people that we will confront, as allies, any security challenge it will face. A nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat not only to Israel — it would also constitute a threat to the United States.”
Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller, Ori Lewis, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Adam Entous and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Tom Perry and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Ralph Boulton