The Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization has approved indirect peace talks with Israel, the first negotiations in 18 months.

"The Palestinian leadership today has declared its acceptance to participate in the proximity talks," said PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo.

He said the decision is based on guarantees from the U.S. "The United States will take a firm political position against any provocation that will affect the peace process and the negotiations between the two sides," said Abed Rabbo.

The term "provocation" was a clear reference to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem-territory claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The settlement issue has overshadowed U.S. efforts to revive peace talks and strained ties between Washington and Israel. But the Palestinians agreed to resume peace talks after Israel curbed construction in the settlements.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who is currently in the region, will shuttle between Jerusalem and the West Bank for four months, to push for a peace agreement. But gaps are wide on the core issues of the conflict: the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the borders of a Palestinian state. So on both sides, expectations are low for a breakthrough.

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