Israel and the Palestinians are poised to resume peace talks as early as next week, ending a year-long moratorium, after Arab leaders agreed to allow the US to act as a go-between.
The Arab League approved four months of "indirect proximity talks" brokered by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell who will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week to make the final arrangements.
It means that rather than sit down together, representatives of the two sides will sit separately while a US negotiator shuttles between them to enable discussion, albeit through a third party.
The talks are likely to be held over a series of meetings in the Middle East and the United States. Israel will be represented by lawyer Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinian envoy will be chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Palestinian leaders will meet in Ramallah this weekend to make their final decision on the proposal. They will demand that Israel cease all construction in West Bank settlements and agree to put the future of East Jerusalem on the negotiating table, Palestinian officials told The Daily Telegraph yesterday.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, welcomed the breakthrough, which will end a Palestinian boycott imposed since he was elected last February.
"We welcome the start of talks, even if they are proximity talks," Mr Netanyahu told Israeli cabinet ministers in Jerusalem on Thursday.
"In the end, our goal is to try and reach a peace agreement with our Palestinian neighbours via direct talks, but we have always said that we do not necessarily insist on this format. If this is what is necessary to start the process – Israel is ready. I think that there is international recognition that this government wants to start a peace process and I tell you that we also want to complete it."
A spokesman for Tony Blair, who represents the US, UN, Russia and the EU working with the Palestinians to secure peace, said: "Mr Blair has repeatedly urged both parties to return to the negotiating table and welcomes yesterday's decision by the Arab foreign ministers.
"Mr. Blair, who will be in the region next week, praised the tireless efforts of Senator Mitchell to secure the resumption of the diplomatic process and expressed hope that these would begin without further delay."
However, Palestinian leaders remain sceptical that the current Israeli government is serious about reaching a peace deal. They say a unilateral 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction announced by Mr Netanyahu last November has been honoured more in the breach than the observance and should also include East Jerusalem, otherwise the proximity talks will lead nowhere.
"It depends on two elements," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Daily Telegraph. "First, the seriousness of the Israeli government, whether they are really looking for a settlement, and secondly on the Americans, how much pressure are they going to put on the Israelis in order to start moving forward according to the Road Map," he said, referring to a US peace plan published in 2003.
"There won't be any direct talks unless there is progress within these four months through the indirect talks," said Mr Abu Rudeineh. "Putting East Jerusalem on the table is number one, settlements is number two – these are the main points."
Even if the two sides can cut through their mutual distrust, Israeli leaders doubt the ability of President Abbas's Fatah-led government to deliver on any peace agreement when its constitutional mandate has officially expired and the Palestinian territories remain divided between the Fatah administration in the West Bank and the Hamas-led regime in Gaza.
Mr Abu Rudeineh said there was no sign yet of a reconciliation with Hamas despite Egyptian-brokered talks that continued for more than a year and produced a draft agreement last November.
"Apart from the Egyptian document which we signed and the others didn't sign it yet - so far there is nothing new concerning this issue," he said.
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