U.S. envoy struggles to renew Mideast talks

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, left, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
The hopes for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks dimmed Friday despite the fast-paced shuttle diplomacy efforts of top U.S. diplomat George Mitchell.

Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for the Middle East, capped off a week of diplomacy in the region with a second round of talks with both sides. He met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Mitchell was not successful in his effort to get a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of next week’s U.N. General Assembly session in New York, according to an Israeli government official, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the talks. Netanyahu plans to leave Israel on Wednesday to address the U.N. assembly the next day, the official said. He added that contingencies have been made for an earlier arrival for Netanyahu if a meeting with Abbas and President Obama should come about. Mitchell has been working to broker a last-minute deal before the start of the the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Friday, and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday this weekend. One of the sticking points has been the Israeli settlement freeze issue. The United States and Israel have publicly disagreed on Israeli plans to build more housing on land the Palestinians regard as theirs, and the Netanyahu government has ignored the Obama administration’s demands for a complete freeze.

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Over the objections of Washington, Israel recently approved the construction of 455 new units — in addition to about 2,500 already in various stages of construction. Abbas has so far rejected resuming talks with Israel until the Jewish state halts all settlement building in the occupied West Bank and in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem. After Mitchell’s meeting Friday with Abbas, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told reporters that the settlement issue has still not been resolved. Mitchell “informed us that there is not an agreement yet with the Israeli side,” Erakat said. “And we once again reiterated that there are no middle-ground solutions for settlements. A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze.” In an interview Thursday with Israeli Channel 2, Netanyahu downplayed the importance of Obama’s calls for a settlement freeze. “There are 2,400 units that are currently being built, and another 500 that we approved. Do you want to call that a freeze I don’t call it a freeze; I call it a slowdown in building — I am willing to do that to help the process and in parallel to preserve normal life of the residents [of the settlements],” Netanyahu said. Earlier in the week, Netanyahu said in a closed-door Knesset committee meeting that Israel would agree only to a partial reduction of housing construction and for a limited time, not the year the United States would like, said a government official who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the meeting. Netanyahu said no agreement had been reached on the length of time for the building hiatus, the source said. Netanyahu has said in the past that a moratorium would not apply to East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its sovereign capital since taking the territory away from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.