Israeli-PA Proximity Talks to Begin Wednesday

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Obama administration special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell arrived in the region on Monday to mediate upcoming proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, slated to begin on Wednesday.

In view of the Arab League's weekend decision to approve the talks, the PLO Executive Committee is expected to follow suit. 

While Israel has agreed to Palestinian demands, backed by the Obama administration, to discuss core issues - including security, water rights, borders, and the status of Jerusalem - at the onset of talks, Israel maintains that resolving those issues can only be done during direct negotiations. 

Over the weekend, PA President Mahmoud Abbas pre-empted the upcoming meetings by demanding control over large chunks of land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), including the Jordan Valley and other areas under full Israeli sovereignty.

"The Americans understand that establishing a Palestinian state is a strategic American interest," Abbas said in an interview with the Palestinian paper al-Ayam, published on Sunday.

Several hours before Mitchell's scheduled arrival, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and National Security Advisor Uzi Arad accompanied the prime minister.

Netanyahu and Mubarak, who met for more than an hour and a half, "focused on the resumption of the peace process and other regional issues," according to National Information Directorate head Nir Hefetz, who described the atmosphere as "positive and constructive."

Netanyahu would like Egypt's backing on security-related issues in a future agreement with the Palestinians. He also hopes to enlist Mubarak's help in convincing the Palestinians to move to direct negotiations as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Ben-Eliezer and Arad met with Omar Sulieman, head of Egyptian intelligence, and Foreign Minister Ahmed About Gheit. Among the issues they discussed was Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive by Hamas, the Palestinian faction controlling the Gaza Strip, since his kidnapping on June 25, 2006.

Sulieman led unsuccessful third-party negotiations between Israel and Hamas for Shalit's release in exchange for up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Germany later stepped in to mediate the swap, but the situation remains virtually unchanged.

Two of Israel's key concerns are the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state and deployment of Israeli forces along its eastern border to prevent weapons smuggling and other terror-related activity.

Netanyahu, who will lead the negotiations himself, plans to begin Wednesday's third-party talks with security- and water-related issues.

"We are going into the process with the best of intentions," one Israeli official said. "If the Palestinians come to the process in good faith, we can move quickly from proximity talks to direct talks," he said.

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The Jerusalem Post and YNet news contributed to this report.

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