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Indirect Mideast Peace Talks Begin

A senior Palestinian official in the West Bank says his government has begun indirect peace talks with Israel through U.S. mediation, ending a 17-month break in negotiations.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made the announcement Sunday. U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell will mediate the talks by shuttling between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Mitchell already has met with both leaders several times in recent days.

Mr. Netanyahu called for the indirect talks to transition quickly to direct negotiations. He told his Cabinet Sunday that peace cannot be made from a distance or by remote control, as he put it.

Mr. Abbas has insisted he will not enter direct talks until Israel stops all building of homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, lands Israel occupied after the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel has frozen new housing starts in the West Bank since last November for a 10-month period, but has refused to stop building homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, which it claims as part of its "eternal" capital. Palestinians want it as their capital for a future state.

Palestinians have said they want indirect talks to focus on core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders of a future Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem.

Members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas that runs the Gaza Strip denounced Mr. Abbas' government, saying indirect talks with Israel will provide cover for Israeli settlement activity.

Mr. Abbas' government broke off direct negotiations with Israel in December 2008 when Israeli forces launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip to stop rocket fire by Hamas militants on Israeli towns.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.