Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
April 23, 2010 - 12:00am

The American envoy to the Middle East, George J. Mitchell, planned to meet on Friday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a sign that indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may be getting back on track, officials from all three parties said.

In advance of encounters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, separately, with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, Mr. Mitchell met on Friday with the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, Reuters reported, but no details of the discussions were made public.

The talks with the two leaders had been expected to begin last month but were delayed after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to build their capital. The Palestinians and President Obama were furious at the announcement, made during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the Americans made a number of demands of Israel aimed at restoring the negotiations.

The specific demands have been kept secret, but it is clear that they involve assurances that further announcements for building in East Jerusalem would not be made in the coming months and that Israel would agree to allow substantive topics, like Jerusalem, borders and refugees, to be discussed in the American-brokered indirect talks rather than insist that they wait for the direct negotiations expected to evolve from them.

Israel has not offered a formal response to the Obama administration, but officials indicated that enough understandings had been reached that indirect talks may start in coming weeks.

Officials from all three parties said the sides were drawing closer to the prospect of starting talks.

Mr. Netanyahu has stated publicly on a number of occasions that he would not freeze all Jewish building in East Jerusalem, as the Palestinians have been demanding. But he instructed all ministries involved in Jerusalem housing to provide his office with relevant plans, apparently to prevent progress on such building from being announced or approved in a way that could derail the negotiation process.

He has also made clear that a number of other concessions would be forthcoming, notably improving conditions for the Palestinian economy through eased access of movement in the occupied West Bank, and perhaps increasing the area of responsibility of Palestinian security forces there.

“We want to get these negotiations started, but what we don’t want is to suddenly see more bulldozers and settlements in Jerusalem,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said by telephone.

He said President Abbas needed to hear from Mr. Mitchell directly Friday on what was offered before any decision on the proximity talks could be made. But his tone indicated greater optimism than in recent weeks.

It seemed likely, nonetheless, that it would be some weeks before the fate of the talks was decided.


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