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U.S. envoy: Israelis and Palestinians accept indirect talks

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Middle East envoy George Mitchell will continue discussions about indirect talks during his trip next week.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell will continue discussions about indirect talks during his trip next week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitchell said the two sides have begun to discuss the "structure and scope" of the talks
  • Negotiations have been stalled for more than a year
  • Netanyahu said he welcomes "the initiation of the peace process ..."
  • Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat appeared to be skeptical
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Washington (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders have accepted indirect talks, according to George Mitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy for Middle East peace.

Mitchell said the two sides, with him acting as intermediary, have begun to discuss the "structure and scope" of the talks, according a statement released Monday by the State Department.

"I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions," Mitchell said. "As we've said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible."

He encouraged both sides to refrain from any statements or actions that could inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of the talks.

Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis have been stalled for more than a year, despite the Obama administration's attempt to move toward a resolution of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an interview published January in Time magazine, Obama acknowledged that the effort "is not where I want it to be."

Mitchell's four-day trip to Israel and the West Bank that month ended with no breakthrough in persuading Israelis and Palestinians to go back to the negotiating table. His efforts to restart the stalled peace process were partly complicated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that Israel maintain a military presence along the West Bank's border with Jordan.

Under current agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel maintains full control over the West Bank and its borders, while the Palestinian government oversees the administration of major population centers.

Speaking at a Christians United for Israel convention in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu said he welcomes "the initiation of the peace process between us and the Palestinians."

"We have been calling to resume the talks without prior conditions for almost a year now," he said. "I hope that the proximity talks will soon lead to direct talks."

Netanyahu in January said his government made a series of concessions to the Palestinians, including a 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction and the removal of dozens of checkpoints and roadblocks. However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to re-enter negotiations until Israel enacts a complete freeze of all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

On Monday, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat appeared to be skeptical about the talks, citing Israeli approval of 112 apartment units in a settlement in the southern part of the West Bank, near Bethlehem.

He said Abbas informed Mitchell that, "If every visit is going to be announced by more settlements and unilateral declarations and imposing reality on the ground ... this places a question mark on all the efforts that we are undergoing."

The announcement of indirect talks comes as Vice President Joe Biden arrives in the Middle East. He will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

 
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