Peace talks between
Israel and the Palestinians could be relaunched as early as February following "encouraging signs" from the Israeli government, a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah predicted over the weekend, Jerusalem Post reported.
US efforts to get the Arab world to throw its support behind an immediate renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hit a snag when Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called on Saturday for more intensive international pressure on Israel to stop all settlement construction, as well as construction in east Jerusalem.
The US has been trying to get both the Saudis and the
Egyptians to support a Palestinian renewal of negotiations, even though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he would not include east Jerusalem in his recently declared 10-month housing-start moratorium.
Mahmoud Abbas has said that he would not return to negotiations unless Israel declared a complete settlement construction halt, including building in eastJerusalem.
Abbas, according to a PA official, is expected to travel to Cairo on Sunday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the possible resumption of peace talks with Israel. Before heading to the Egyptian capital, Abbas met in Ramallah with US Consul-General Daniel Rubenstein.
Abbas's visit to Cairo will come less than a week after Netanyahu visited there and briefed the Egyptians on what Israel was willing to do to restart negotiations. Following that meeting, there was some talk that Mubarak would host a Netanyahu-Abbas summit, the rationale being that an Egyptian umbrella for a meeting would signal strong support for a renewal of negotiations.
Egyptian Foreign Minister
Ahmed Aboul Gheit said at the time that Netanyahu discussed positions that "surpass in our estimate what we've heard from them [the Israelis] in a long time. I can't say that he has come with changed positions, but he is moving forward."
In addition to calling for a complete settlement freeze, Abbas has also recently demanded that the international community recognize the June 4, 1967 lines as the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.
One PA official said that in recent weeks there has been an apparent "change" in Israel's policy that could pave the way for the resumption of the talks. He claimed that Netanyahu was now apparently ready to recognize the pre-1967 lines as the basis for future talks with the Palestinians.
He also said that the prime minister was ready to discuss swapping territory between the Palestinians and Israel.
"We're beginning to hear new things from Israel," the official said.
"For the first time an Israeli government is willing to negotiate with us on the basis of the 1967 borders, and this is an encouraging move."
Such a move would represent a considerable concession, since Netanyahu has always said that the basis for any settlement would have to be "secure and defensible" borders, and that the pre-1967 lines did not meet that criteria. Israeli diplomatic officials said on Saturday night there has been no change in the prime minister's position on this matter.
The basis for the negotiations, or the so-called terms of reference for talks, is expected to be the focus of US Mideast envoy George Mitchell's visit to the region, expected either this week or the next.
These terms of reference are expected to be closely aligned to a statement recently released by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said the aim of the talks would be to reconcile the Palestinian demand for a state based on the pre-1967 lines, with Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders.
The Saudi foreign minister, meanwhile, said Washington and other players involved in the Middle East diplomatic efforts should take a "firm and serious" stand to put an end to Israeli construction in the settlements and in eastJerusalem.
"The reason why a solution cannot be reached is the preferential treatment that Israel gets," he said. "When other countries violate international law, they get punished, except for Israel. If war crimes are committed, other countries get punished, except Israel.
"Israel has become in the international community like a spoiled child," he said. "It does what it wants without being questioned or punished."
Saud spoke after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.
The Saudi foreign minister said solutions to the most difficult issues - including final borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees - should be presented for negotiation. If the parties fail to reach a settlement, then the International Court of Justice should get involved, he said.
Saud said Israel would be the first country to be threatened from the instability that would result if there is no Middle East peace.
A senior government source in Jerusalem said that Saud's comments were "not surprising," and that anyone who had harbored hopes that Riyadh would take any positive steps to move the diplomatic process forward had unfortunately been "consistently disappointed."
Saud, at a press conference in July with Clinton, turned down US President Barack Obama's request that his country, and other Arab states, make preliminary confidence-building gestures to Israel, One such suggestion was for the Saudis to let Israeli commercial planes fly over their country.