'Big question mark'

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, reportedly told Mitchell when they met in Ramallah on Monday that if Israel continued to embarrass the Palestinian Authority with more settlement construction, the talks would go back into deep freeze.

Saeb Erekat, the leading Palestinian negotiator, accused Israel of trying to undermine the talks even before they begin.

"If the price that we will pay for saying 'yes' to Mitchell will be more settlements and more incursions and more dictations, that's a big question mark about the possibility of continuing"

Saeb Erekat, 
Palestinian negotiator

"If the price that we will pay for saying 'yes' to Mitchell will be more settlements and more incursions and more dictations, that's a big question mark about the possibility of continuing," he said.

Abbas had demanded for months that Israel freeze all building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before Palestinians return to the negotiating table.

But on Sunday Palestinian leaders agreed to take part in indirect talks with Israel, brokered by the US, for a four-month trial period.

Some Palestinian groups such as Hamas, which governs Gaza criticised the decision to renew talks as caving in to pressure from the US and Israel.

Israel said in November that it would restrict – for 10 months - West Bank construction to 3,000 housing units already under way, but said then that there would be "exceptions".

On Monday, the defence ministry said such an exception - the biggest since the 10-month restriction went into effect - was made in the case of the ultra-Orthodox Beitar Illit because of what it termed safety and infrastructure issues. 

Snub to US

The 10-month so-called restriction to settlement expansion – which does not include East Jerusalem - already fell well short of Washington's previous demand of a total freeze on all settlement building activity.

And Monday's move appeared to be the latest snub to the Obama administration as Joe Biden, the US vice-president, kicked off his five-day visit to the region on Monday.

Israel says Beitar Illit will be expanded for what it calls safety reasons [AFP]

Biden's is the highest-level visit to the region yet by an Obama administration official.

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Biden said it was crucial both sides enter negotiations with a positive attitude.

"We have got to ensure now that we will give the talks every chance of succeeding. The key is holding talks with goodwill, so that both sides come to the table with serious intentions," he said.

"If the talks develop, we believe that we'll be able to bridge the gaps and that the conflict will be ended."

Later on Monday, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, welcomed the new start to negotiations in a speech in Jerusalem after meeting Mitchell.

"I hope the proximity talks will quickly lead to direct talks that would really allow the promotion of peace," he said.

But he added that negotiations would only succeed if the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state and that Israel's security be guaranteed.

"The diplomatic process is not a game, it is real, and rooted first and foremost in [Israel's] security," Netanyahu said.