Settlement freeze

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, announced a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank in November. Abbas' timetable for proximity talks will roughly coincide with the end of that freeze.

Israeli officials have said repeatedly that they won't approve another halt in construction, regardless of what happens during negotiations.

Abbas's comments, coupled with his earlier assertion that the Luban Al Sharqiya mosque fire"threatens" the talks, add to a general sense of pessimism even before the dialogue gets underway.

Negotiations had been expected to start on Wednesday, but Israeli and Palestinian officials say they will not formally start until Saturday, after a meeting of the PLO's executive committee.

Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minster, told the Jerusalem Post this weekthat the talks will not yield any results, and that he expects the Palestinian Authority to avoid "tough decisions" on questions like the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

'Preparing for failure'

Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, a senior member of the Israeli army's military intelligence branch, told Israel's parliament on Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority is "already preparing the ground for the failure" of the talks.

"Although the PA president [Abbas] is interested in an agreement with Israel, his flexibility on the core issues is limited, and we don't see any real attempt at being more flexible on the essential matters," he said.

Ahmed Qureia, a senior Palestinian negotiator, told reporters that the so-called Quartet of Middle East negotiators needed to establish clearer terms for the talks.

"To enhance the chances of success, it is imperative that the international community, through the Quartet, provide clear references for talks, in light of Israeli violations," he said.

The indirect talks are expected to focus first on the question of borders.

David Axelrod, the senior political adviser to US president Barack Obama, said the talks will not initially tackle more contentious issues, such as the status of Jerusalem.