US envoy shuttles between Israelis, Palestinians in effort to save Mideast talks

Friday, October 1, 2010

US envoy pressing to save Mideast talks

JERUSALEM — A U.S. envoy was shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah on Friday as part of an emergency mission to rescue Mideast peace talks facing collapse because of a spat over Israeli settlements.

George Mitchell was meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders at odds over the end of Israel’s temporary settlement slowdown, with no evident sign so far of a compromise that would allow the month-old talks to move forward.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to quit the U.S-sponsored negotiations unless Israel extends the 10-month-old restrictions on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do so.

The U.S., which worked for months to coax both sides back to the negotiating table, is pressing Israel to extend the slowdown in a bid to keep talks going.

Israeli media have reported that American mediators offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a package of far-reaching incentives in return for agreeing to a 60-day extension, including new weaponry.

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, the U.S. also promised to support an Israeli demand to leave troops along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state after a peace agreement, a demand the Palestinians have said they will not accept.

But Netanyahu — hemmed in by his hard-line coalition partners and his own explicit promises that the slowdown would last only 10 months — has so far refused.

Mitchell met with Netanyahu on Friday morning. In public comments before the meeting, the Israeli leader said only that he has a “mission of peace” and hopes the talks continue. The European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, also met Netanyahu on Friday in an attempt to bridge the gaps between the sides.

Abbas is expected to make his final decision at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers next week in Cairo.

Ahead of that meeting, Egypt’s foreign minister issued a surprising criticism of the Palestinian decision to make talks contingent on the freeze, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a Palestinian state.

“Whoever offered the idea to freeze settlements as a main goal and priority didn’t see the real goal of the negotiations, which is to define borders,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat in an interview published Friday.

“Everyone involved should be working hard to define borders … and then we can start looking at other items on the agenda,” he said.

The comments could suggest that Egypt will throw its weight behind Abbas if the Palestinian leader opts to soften his demand for a continuation of the construction restrictions. Such a decision, however, would further damage Abbas’ standing among Palestinians, many of whom already see 75-year-old leader as overly influenced by the U.S. and too conciliatory toward Israel.

will not be displayed