By Douglas Hamilton
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled on Monday he is weighing a proposal to relaunch stalled Middle East peace talks at a U.S.-backed summit with the Israeli and Egyptian leaders early in the new year.
But his decision on the idea, floated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will depend on learning what a high-level meeting might yield, Abbas said after talks in Egypt with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman are due to go to Washington on Friday for talks on the initiative.
“The best thing is to judge this issue after the return of the two ministers from the United States because it will be more clear and we can sit down and see the details,” the Palestinian news agency Wafa quoted Abbas as saying on Monday. “We don’t want to judge it now because it’s still unclear.”
Abbas is wary of emerging empty-handed from another high-profile meeting with Netanyahu, as he did on September 22 in New York after agreeing to U.S. President Barack Obama’s wish for what turned out to be no more than a three-way handshake.
“Statements and meetings and summits are not what’s needed. What is needed is tangible steps on the ground and political decisions,” Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters.
He said serious efforts were under way to break the deadlock that has endured since fierce fighting a year ago between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement that controls Gaza.
Israel, Egypt and the United States want Abbas to reopen talks with no more ado, but he refuses as long as Israel allows construction to continue in Jewish West Bank settlements.
Abbas was embarrassed when Obama, after first siding with his demand for a total freeze on settlement activity, backed down in the face of Netanyahu’s resistance and said “restraint” by Israel should be enough to enable talks to restart.
On November 25, Netanyahu ordered a partial halt to new housing in the settlements for 10 months, but Abbas has said repeatedly that only a total freeze would suffice, and there appears to be zero chance of that happening.
Egypt, with heavyweight influence in the Arab world, is playing a central role in providing Abbas with a respectable way out of a diplomatic corner so that peace talks can be revived.
Israel’s Maariv newspaper on Monday said Washington had formulated a plan seeking the immediate resumption of talks in which both sides would seek a final accord within two years.
Its unsourced report said Israel and the Palestinians would aim to agree on the frontiers of a Palestinian state before the expiry of Netanyahu’s settlement moratorium, then go on to address core issues, such as the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
There was no official comment on Maariv’s report.
Netanyahu, speaking to members of his Likud faction on Monday, said he had “gained the impression that there has been a certain change in the atmosphere” over the past few weeks.
“I hope things have indeed developed to a point that would allow for the peace process to move forward,” he said. “Israel is prepared to enter into negotiations immediately with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions.”