JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday agreed to a proposal by international mediators to resume peace negotiations after the initiative was positively received by the Palestinians, but there were no signs that a dispute over Israeli settlement building that has blocked the talks was any closer to being resolved.
The proposal by the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — calls for a meeting this month to set the agenda for negotiations, followed by talks on borders and security, with the goal of reaching an overall agreement by the end of 2012.
"Israel welcomes the Quartet's call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu," said a statement from the prime minister's office. The statement also called on the Palestinian Authority "to do the same and enter into direct negotiations without delay."
The Quartet proposal was put forward Sept. 23 as the Palestinians submitted an application for membership of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. The application is opposed by Israel and Washington.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that Israel has become "increasingly isolated" in the Middle East because of its deteriorating relations with Egypt and Turkey, as well as the political tumult triggered by the Arab Spring.
Panetta spoke to reporters shortly after he departed Washington for a trip to the Mideast and Europe. His first scheduled stop is Israel, where he is expected to warn Israeli and Palestinian leaders that conditions for instability are ripe if they do not re-engage in peace talks soon.
Panetta said he would try to prod both sides to accept the latest attempt to restart talks.
The Quartet proposal to revive talks has been interpreted differently by Israel and the Palestinians, with each side finding language in the statement that echoes its views. The Israelis note that the plan calls for negotiations without preconditions. The Palestinians cite its reference to a peace blueprint that requires Israel to freeze settlement activity on land the Palestinians seek for a state.
The Palestinians have refused to resume talks unless Israel stops building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and accepts that its 1967 boundaries should be the basis for a future peace deal. The Palestinians argue that negotiations have so far served as a cover for Israeli settlement expansion, determining in advance the contours of a final agreement.
That position was reiterated Sunday by Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said that resuming talks "requires Israel to commit to stopping settlement" and to recognize "the 1967 borders."
The Quartet plan calls for a resumption of direct negotiations "without delay or preconditions." But it also calls on both sides to "refrain from provocative actions" and cites their obligations under a 2003 peace blueprint known as the road map, which requires Israel to freeze settlement activity and the Palestinians to stop violence.
Israel's decision last week to advance plans to build 1,100 homes on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem was sharply criticized by Washington, the United Nations and the European Union as undermining efforts to resume negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected another settlement freeze after a 10-month moratorium on new building expired in September 2010, leading the Palestinians to break off talks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Netanyahu on Friday and told him that the decision to green-light new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem has "raised doubts that the Israeli government is interested in starting serious negotiations" with the Palestinians, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said. He said Merkel called Netanyahu to tell him "it is now necessary to dispel those doubts."
The Palestinian leadership said Thursday that there were many "encouraging elements" in the Quartet plan, including its reference to the road map obligations and President Barack Obama's speech in May outlining an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps.
Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Abbas, said later that there were "very few flaws" in the initiative.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.