Netanyahu eyes twice-monthly head-to-heads with Abbas

(AFp file) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (AFP) – 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 hawkish premier said that "serious negotiations in the Midddle East (require) direct, discreet and continuous talks between the leaders on key issues," the English-language Jerusalem Post reported.

He told the ministers he hoped to meet Abbas every two weeks to address key issues which would then be fleshed out by the negotiating teams.

Media reports said he also told the ministers the Israeli team would be led by his pointman on Palestinian affairs Yitzhak Molcho, a longstanding friend who had already served as advisor and emissary during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister in the 1990s.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a firebrand ultra-nationalist who has talked down the prospects for the new negotiations, will not be part of the Israeli delegation, press reports said.

Lieberman's spokesman declined to comment.

US officials were informed of Netanyahu's proposals ahead of a ceremony in Washington next Thursday to mark the relaunch.

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 a devastating 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, outside annexed Arab east Jerusalem, which is due to end on September 26.

The Israeli government faces strong pressure at home not to renew the freeze on new construction permits, 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. They are home to about 500,000 Israelis.

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