RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel and the Palestinians were on Sunday set to formally relaunch Middle East peace efforts after the PLO gave its green light to enter US-brokered indirect talks with the Jewish state.
US special envoy George Mitchell was expected to announce a date for the start of the "proximity talks" shortly after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at 11:00 am (0800 GMT) in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The way was opened for the two sides after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) gave its backing to a renewal of indirect talks with Israel at a Ramallah meeting on Saturday.
After the decision, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said the US envoy would make a formal announcement about the start of the proximity talks.
"Senator Mitchell in person will tomorrow (Sunday) announce the American position and the date for the start of negotiations," he told reporters in Ramallah.
Mitchell, who is to return to Washington on Sunday, will orchestrate the planned four months of indirect talks in the form of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington.
Addressing the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Palestinian decision to move forward, but stressed the need to open direct talks.
Indirect talks must move swiftly to direct talks," he said.
We cannot solve the most serious issues between us... without sitting in the same room.
Top US officials are pressing the Palestinians to start direct talks as soon as possible, Haaretz newspaper said on Sunday.
Quoting a senior Israeli official, the daily said Washington had made clear to the Palestinians that the United States would not unveil mediation proposals or a peace plan before the start of direct, substantive talks between the two sides on final-status issues.
The indirect talks, which both sides are hoping will revive the peace process after a 17-month hiatus, are expected to cover all final status issues, including borders, security and Jerusalem.
Israel has insisted security issues top the agenda in the talks, while the Palestinians say the focus must be on borders of their future promised state.
While it appears likely the indirect talks, called off at the last minute in March, are poised to restart, there is very little expectation on either side that they will produce tangible results other than a possible resumption of direct negotiations.
Abbas adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo said the PLO endorsement "aims at giving the peace process a serious chance" and was based on US guarantees and assurances about Jewish settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.
The two sides were due to start indirect talks in March but the Palestinians pulled out after Israel publicised plans to build 1,600 homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
After receiving US assurances the Jerusalem settlement expansion plan would be put on hold, the Palestinians eventually agreed to consider a new attempt at proximity talks.
Direct negotiations were kicked off in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus but produced no tangible results, and collapsed just over a year later when Israel launched a deadly offensive against Gaza aimed at halting militant attacks.
Jerusalem and Jewish settlements are among the thorniest issues in efforts to achieve a peace deal.
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a their future promised state, but Israel considers all of the Holy City to be its "eternal and indivisible" capital.