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Biden visits Mideast as Israel, Palestinians OK talks

Vice President Joe Biden began a trip to the Middle East as the United States announced that Israel and the Palestinians accepted a plan to start indirect talks that analysts say are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough.

Biden landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv as U.S. envoy George Mitchell clinched understandings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to participate in discussions aimed at reviving direct peace talks.

"We've begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions," Mitchell said in a statement released in Washington Monday.

Peace negotiations have been frozen since the end of 2008, when Israel launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was to stop Hamas from firing rockets. Last week, Arab states endorsed a U.S. bid to break the ice by mediating a series of indirect talks designed to pave the way for direct negotiations.

Hours before Biden's arrival, Israel disclosed that it had approved the construction of 112 homes in a West Bank settlement, drawing condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, which called the action "provocative."

U.S.-led efforts to revive talks have foundered on the issue of West Bank settlement building, with Netanyahu announcing a partial halt and Abbas demanding a freeze of all construction.

The fact that it has taken more than a year for Mitchell to arrange indirect talks indicates how "dire" the situation has become between the two sides, said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

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