Indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians got under way on Sunday, a top Palestinian official said after months of shuttle diplomacy by Washington\'s special Middle East envoy.
"The proximity talks have started," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said after a meeting between Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and US envoy George Mitchell in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"Today, on May 9, the negotiations have begun at the level of the president (Abbas) and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu," he added, while stressing there would be no direct contact between the parties.
"There are no negotiations between us and the Israeli government," he said. "The discussions will be held with Mitchell and the Americans, and they will mediate between the two sides."
The indirect talks, which both sides are hoping will revive the peace process after a 17-month break, are expected to cover all final-status issues, including borders, security and Jerusalem.
The way was opened for the two sides to move ahead on Saturday when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) gave its backing to the start of indirect talks with Israel.
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 Israel\'s weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu welcomed the Palestinian decision to move forward, but stressed the need to open direct talks.
"The proximity talks must lead swiftly to direct talks," the hawkish premier said, adding that peace "cannot be made from a distance or by remote control.
"It is inconceivable that we will make decisions and agreements on critical issues such as security and our national interests, and theirs as well, without sitting together in the same room."
Top US officials are pressing the Palestinians to start direct talks as soon as possible, according to Haaretz newspaper.
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.
News that the talks had begun drew an angry response from the Islamist movement Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip that said the new round of negotiations was "a very bad step" for the Palestinians.
"It is an escape route for the Netanyahu government which has been going through a big crisis, especially after the international requests for it to stop settlement activities and other violations," spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP in Gaza City.
"At the same time, the start of these negotiations is an embarrassment to (US President Barack) Obama after his request for settlement activity to stop before returning to negotiations."
There is very little expectation on either side that the talks will produce tangible results other than a possible resumption of direct negotiations.
An earlier round of proximity talks were to start in March but the Palestinians pulled out after Israel publicised plans to build 1,600 settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians only agreed to consider fresh talks after receiving US assurances the Jerusalem settlement expansion plan would be frozen.
The last time the two sides held direct negotiations was in November 2007 following a seven-year hiatus, but the talks collapsed just over a year later when Israel launched a deadly assault on Gaza aimed at halting rocket 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 their promised future state, but Israel considers all of the Holy City to be its "eternal and indivisible" capital.
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