Palestinian officials in President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party expressed reluctance on Friday to move from indirect to direct negotiations with the right—leaning government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Washington’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is in the region to push for direct peace talks, which the United States wants to launch before Israel’s partial, 10—month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements expires on September 26.
Mr. Netanyahu indicated in Washington last week that he does not intend to extend the moratorium.
Mr. Mitchell met with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday. He will then undertake the short drive to the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian leadership on Saturday.
The envoy has thus far mediated several rounds of indirect negotiations, since a sceptical and reluctant Mr. Abbas agreed to the talks in the spring despite the absence of a full construction freeze that also includes East Jerusalem.
Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party said it opposes the start of direct talks until there is progress made in the indirect talks on the key negotiating issues of borders and security — a position also strongly held by Mr. Abbas himself.
Speaking to local media on Friday, Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan said that the start of direct talks is conditional on the Israeli responses to Palestinian questions presented to Mr. Mitchell on those two issues. He said the Palestinians have yet to hear Israel’s answers.
“The Americans have failed to get Mr. Netanyahu to answer the Palestinian questions and now they want Mr. Mitchell to tell the president on Saturday to go to direct talks,” Mr. Dahlan said.
“We should tell Mitchell on Saturday to give these answers and not to jump into unknown and indefinite talks,” he added.
Mr. Dahlan said the Fatah Central Council and its Revolutionary Council will meet on Monday to discuss the peace talks and take a position on them.
In Washington, Assistant Secretary Philip Crowley said he holds a “strong belief” that direct negotiations will be renewed “at some point in time.” But he added, “whether that’s days from now or weeks from now, I don’t think we’re in a position to say at this point.” “Obviously, this is a decision that is, first and foremost, up to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders,” he said.
Mr. Mitchell was also expected to meet international Middle East envoy Tony Blair and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, before travelling to Cairo to consult with President Mubarak and meet with Arab League Secretary General Moussa on Sunday.
Ms. Ashton is scheduled to make a rare visit to Gaza on Sunday.
Israel normally shuts off the Palestinian enclave from international contact because it is run by Hamas, a militant Islamist group considered to be a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States.
Israel’s biggest—selling daily, Yediot Ahronot, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to propose to Ms. Ashton that Israel get rid of all its responsibility over Gaza, instead handing over security checks on goods and people entering by land and sea to the international community.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, however, said his proposal appeared to be a private initiative, not an adopted government policy.
Over a three—day visit starting Saturday, the EU’s top diplomat is also scheduled to meet with Mr. Abbas in the West Bank, while “direct contacts” with Hamas in Gaza are excluded, an EU spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, an opinion poll published by the Jerusalem Post indicated on Friday that the vast majority of Jewish Israelis believe that U.S. President Barack Obama does not favour their country, despite his friendly reception to Mr. Netanyahu at the White House last week.
Some 10 per cent of Israeli Jews saw the Obama administration as more pro—Israel, against 46 per cent who said more pro—Palestinian.
The poll of 515 Jewish Israelis was taken on Monday through Wednesday and had a margin of error of 4.4 per cent.