BBC News | Friday, 30 April 2010 | 19:15 GMT
Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks are set to start next week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says. Mrs. Clinton told reporters in Washington that US special envoy George Mitchell would be returning to the region next week. Plans to launch the indirect negotiations failed last month over a row about Israeli plans to build 1,600 homes in occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since 2008. "We will be starting with proximity talks next week," Mrs. Clinton said. "Ultimately we want to see parties in direct negotiations and working out all the difficult issues that they must." Washington expected that Arab foreign ministers meeting on Saturday would endorse the new talks, she added. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "We are making every possible effort to begin these talks. But the official decision will be made by the Arab foreign ministers and the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] executive committee." Israeli officials have not publicly commented on Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.
The US has been struggling to get the proximity talks under way. These were knocked off course by an announcement in March that Israel had approved plans for the new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden. The Palestinians – who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state – then pulled out of the scheduled indirect talks last month in protest. Mr Mitchell’s team has been actively trying to extract guarantees from the Israelis to bring the Palestinians back to the proposed talks.
Earlier this week, the US envoy said he had held "positive and productive" talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. A report in the Wall Street Journal last week quoted unnamed US officials as saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had offered measures including easing the blockade on Gaza, releasing prisoners, freezing the controversial 1,600 homes for two years, and agreeing to discuss borders and the status of Jerusalem. The Palestinians were still seeking clarification, but hoped to be in a position to seek the Arab League’s backing to re-enter talks at the meeting scheduled for 1 May. "We were always in favour of the talks, and we still want them to go ahead," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said earlier this week.
However, it is unclear what promises the US has made to the Palestinians to guarantee there will be no further unilateral Israeli actions that undermine the process, the BBC’s State Department correspondent Kim Ghattas says. Israel has occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967. It insists Jerusalem will remain its undivided capital. 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.