An Israeli cabinet minister said this morning that U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians could begin next week, but neither side could formally confirm his assessment.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that Israel and the Palestinians had laid the groundwork for ending their almost three-year diplomatic impasse and would send negotiators to Washington soon.
Israel says new peacemaking would be without "preconditions" about the borders of a future Palestinian state in territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. But the Palestinians have said they want assurances about those borders first.
"But of course it's not something that I can speak on behalf of the Palestinians," he said, speaking in English. "If they will do so, as I said, the negotiations will start next Tuesday in Washington."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment on Shalom's remarks.
Yesterday, Netanyahu told reporters: "I hope that soon we will be able to see the beginning of peace talks (with the Palestinians). Our team is ready. We have always been ready."
Israeli officials said the conservative prime minister, who faces scepticism about the prospect of new negotiations from religious-nationalist members of his coalition government, might hold off on sending negotiators to Washington until after he secured the approval of his cabinet when it convenes on Sunday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said the Palestinians awaited an invitation from the United States.
"The Palestinian delegation is ready," he told Reuters. "We are committed to the meeting that was agreed to be held in Washington to discuss the issues."
Abbas's administration sees the planned meeting as a chance to pursue his demand that any peace talks be predicated on a future Palestinian state having borders approximating the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, which has peppered the West Bank with Jewish settlements and wants to keep swathes of them under any eventual peace accord, has refused to embrace the 1967 borders formula ahead of the new negotiations.
A Western official briefed on Kerry's mission said on Sunday: "There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the '67 lines will be the basis for negotiations."