U.S.-mediated talks with Palestine could begin next week, Israel said on Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he expected to start the indirect diplomacy with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas once U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy arrives in the region early next week to shuttle between them.
But Netanyahu's hawkish foreign minister, a key member of the coalition cabinet, poured cold water on any hopes of a rapid settlement of a conflict that has lasted over 60 years.
Palestinian officials said they wanted the U.S.-mediated talks to focus initially on defining the borders of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But a final definition of a border between the West Bank and Israel means settling the dispute over Jerusalem and its holy sites -- Palestinians wants the eastern part captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a right-wing party that appeals to Russian-speaking immigrants and himself a resident of the West Bank settlements that Washington says are an obstacle to peace, said on Thursday that while talks were welcome, a deal still seemed a distant objective.
"I don't believe it is possible to reach a comprehensive deal in the near future," Lieberman told a news conference.
Hamas condemn "selling illusions"
After months of stalemate in which Abbas resisted U.S. calls to resume talks unless Israel halt all Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before he would end a 14-month hiatus in negotiation, Arab League foreign ministers gave their blessing to four months of indirect talks.
Abbas's decision to negotiate despite dissatisfaction with a temporary and partial settlement pause ordered by Netanyahu in November was condemned by his Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip and remain popular, too, in the West Bank.
"The decision to go back to the talks gives the Israeli enemy the cover to continue settlements. There will not be anything left to negotiate on," Izzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters in the Syrian capital Damascus.
"Mahmoud Abbas has to step aside," said Rishq, who is a member of Hamas's politburo. "Resuming these talks is selling illusions to the Palestinian people and playing with their emotions. Eighteen years of talks with Israel have achieved zero. What is there to expect from an extra four months?"
Abbas's chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said charting borders for a Palestinian state in four months was essential. This may include swapping some territory, he said.
ReutersLast Mod: 05 Mart 2010, 08:17