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U.S. envoy resumes push for Israel settlement deal
Fri Sep 18, 2009 3:05am EDT
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By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - United States and Israeli officials began a third meeting in Jerusalem on Friday to try to reach agreement on a West Bank settlement freeze that could restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy was meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to break an apparent impasse after their two previous sessions during Mitchell's current visit to the region.
The decision to extend discussions kept open the possibility of a meeting next week involving Netanyahu, Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who all plan to attend a United Nations General Assembly meeting.
But failure to arrange at least an informal encounter between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would be a setback for Obama, who has been trying to wring a construction freeze in settlements from Netanyahu and restart peace talks.
Israeli and Palestinian diplomats and officials said earlier this week that a trilateral meeting in some guise in New York seemed likely, and it might signal a resumption of some form of "peace process" but not any resolution of key disputes.
Abbas has made a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel, suspended since December, conditional on halting settlement activity as stipulated by a U.S.-backed 2003 peace "road map" charting a course toward Palestinian statehood.
But an aide to Abbas said he would find it hard to refuse a request from Obama to meet Netanyahu, though under pressure from Fatah party allies who felt a gesture toward Israel without a halt to settlement would hand a victory to Islamist Hamas.
Abbas's Hamas rivals control the Gaza Strip, which along with the occupied West Bank is territory Palestinians want for a future state.
At the last meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell on Wednesday, a photo opportunity at the start appeared to speak volumes. After a stiff handshake for the media, Netanyahu turned his back on Mitchell with barely a word and entered his office, leaving Obama's envoy to follow.
Mitchell has been trying to work out a deal with a defiant Netanyahu, who has resisted Obama's call to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, in the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade.
"The United States is asking all the parties -- Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab states -- to take responsibility for peace through concrete actions that will help create a positive context for the relaunch of negotiations," Mitchell told reporters in Cairo on Thursday where he met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
On Thursday, Mitchell also met Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman.
"There is a need to prevent any Israeli plan that seeks to disrupt the launch of peace talks by imposing facts on the ground and continuing settlements and unilateral measures that end the chances of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state," the Jordanian king was quoted by state news agency Petra as telling Mitchell.
Jordan and its pro-U.S. Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, hope Obama will continue to pressure Israel to freeze settlement construction on West Bank territory, which Arabs say is a prerequisite for negotiations. Continued...
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