Israel, Palestinians Take Steps 'Conducive to Talks'

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JERUSALEM, Israel - The State Department confirmed over the weekend that Israel and the Palestinians had officially concluded the first round of mediated shuttle talks with the help of the U.S.

"The talks were serious and wide-ranging," a statement read.

"Both parties are taking some steps to help create an atmosphere that is conducive to successful talks, including [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas' statement that he will work against incitement of any sort, and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu's statement that there will be no construction at the Ramat Shlomo project for two years," it read.

Israel has complained about the continuing incitement in the Palestinian media and society. One example was the Palestinian Authority's recent naming of a public square after Dalal Mughrabi, a Palestinian terrorist who led a deadly terror attack in which 37 Israelis were killed in 1978.

Palestinians want Israel to halt all Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem, where they hope to have the capital of a future state. Tensions flared between Israel and the U.S. over the issue when Israel announced a new building project in Ramat Shlomo during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden.

Israel considers the entire city its eternal, undivided capital. Netanyahu's office noted on Monday that construction in the established neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo is only due to begin "years from now." 

"They are both trying to move forward in difficult circumstances and we commend them for that," the State Department said.

Mitchell will shuttle back and forth between Israel and the Palestinians, conducting proximity talks for the next four months.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced the start of talks over the weekend.

"We hope, as the president said, that every possible effort will be exerted in order to give president Obama and Senator Mitchell the chance they deserve in order to reach a successful conclusion to this endeavor," Erekat said.

The aim of the talks is to get the two sides back to direct negotiations, frozen for more than a year.

Netanyahu said the talks had been started without preconditions. But he said they must lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible.

"Peace can't be made with distances or by remote control," he told cabinet members on Sunday.

While the proximity talks mark the first concrete move in the Obama administration's Middle East peace efforts, the indirect talks are generally considered a step backwards since Israel and the Palestinians have been negotiating directly on and off for the past 16 years.

And expectations are low among Israelis and Palestinians alike.

"These negotiations are like the ones before. We move one step forward and one step back," Ramallah resident Sobhi Tabenjh said.

"I don't really know how serious the parties are. I think everybody is very skeptical about it…you know, proximity talks. We did it 15, 20 years ago so I don't see anything new," Jerusalem resident Tomer Haramati said.

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AP contributed to this report.

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Julie Stahl

Julie Stahl

Correspondent, CBN News Jerusalem Bureau

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