Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to personally lead peace talks that start next week and hopes to meet Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas every two weeks, a senior official said on Friday.
The official confirmed media reports, saying Netanyahu considered it vital that negotiations be conducted between leaders and in the greatest possible secrecy.
Speaking at a meeting of top ministers on Thursday night, the prime minister said “serious negotiations in the Middle East [require] direct, discreet and continuous talks between the leaders on key issues,” the English-language Jerusalem Post reported.
He told ministers he hoped to meet Abbas every two weeks to discuss key issues to then be fleshed out by negotiating teams.
Media reports said the Israeli side would be led by Netanyahu’s pointman on Palestinian affairs Yitzhak Molcho, a long-standing friend who served as an adviser during his first term as prime minister.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a firebrand ultra-nationalist, will not be part of the Israeli delegation, press reports said.
US officials were told of Netanyahu’s proposals ahead of a ceremony in Washington next Thursday to mark the relaunch of talks.
Thursday’s summit will be the first direct negotiations between the two sides since the Palestinians broke off talks in December 2008 after Israel launched an offensive against the Gaza Strip.
Late on Thursday, veteran US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross arrived in Israel for a final round of shuttle diplomacy ahead of the Washington meeting, army radio said. He will be seeking to narrow the differences between the two sides, in particular over the future of a partial Israeli moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which is due to end on Sept. 26.
The Israeli government faces strong pressure at home not to renew the freeze, while Abbas has warned that “if Israel resumes settlement activities, including in east Jerusalem, we cannot continue with negotiations.”
The international community considers settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, to be illegal, but these are now home to about 500,000 Israelis.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile is to meet French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy next week on his way to the Washington summit, Egypt’s flagship Al-Ahram newspaper said.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Friday that the EU should be represented at the talks by its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“It would be a shame if there was no European representation,” he said in Paris.
Kouchner referred to the fact that EU is the major contributor of Palestinian aid, but plays second fiddle diplomatically to the US.
The EU is part of the Middle East quartet, along with Russia, the UN and the US
Jordan’s King Abdullah II is also due to attend the inaugural session of the talks in Washington.
Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel.