US, European envoys plead with Israel to extend settlement moratorium to save peace talks

By Mohammed Daraghmeh, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

US, European envoys pressing to save Mideast talks

RAMALLAH, West Bank — U.S. and European peace envoys pleaded with Israel on Friday to extend its moratorium on West Bank settlement construction, as the Palestinians stuck to their insistence that all building must stop for fledgling peace talks to continue.

After days of shuttling and with no signs of a breakthrough, White House emissary George Mitchell left the region to consult with Arab leaders ahead of a crucial meeting of Arab League foreign ministers next week.

But he won an extra two days to work with, as a meeting slated for Wednesday in Cairo was pushed back to Oct. 8 in Sirte, Libya, according to Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas is expected to voice his final decision there on whether to continue the month-old peace talks with Israel.

After meeting Abbas Friday, Mitchell said obstacles remained but that both sides have agreed to continue the efforts to find a way out of the impasse.

“We recognize there are difficult and complex issues involved,” Mitchell said. “Despite that we will continue with determination.”

Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Friday. 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 in an attempt to bridge the gaps between the sides.

“I have urged Israel to continue the moratorium and allow the talks more time to make inroads to progress,” she said after the meeting.

Abbas and Netanyahu are deadlocked over Israeli settlement construction. Earlier this week, Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month-old moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements. Abbas has warned he’ll quit U.S.-sponsored peace talks unless the moratorium is extended.

But Netanyahu has so far refused, for fear of angering his hard-line coalition partners and reneging on his own explicit promises that the slowdown was a one-time gesture and would last only 10 months.

In a briefing to his staff Friday, Netanyahu voiced frustration with the unflinching Palestinian demand for a complete halt to settlement construction, according to an official who was briefed on the conversations.

The official said Netanyahu told the meeting that “it was not easy for us to freeze new building in Judea and Samaria for ten months, but I stood by all our commitments toward the Palestinians, the American administration and the international community.”

The Israeli leader also said that this was done to give Abbas “space to enter direct negotiations without preconditions” and that he expects the Palestinians to “show some flexibility and remain in the talks.”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to divulge the content of the meeting.

The U.S. worked for months to coax both sides back to the negotiating table and is now pressing Israel to extend the slowdown to keep them going.

Israeli media have reported that American mediators offered 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.

U.S. officials have declined to comment on specifics of their proposals for moving the talks forward.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was pleased with “the restraint that has been shown on all sides” and hoped that the sides would find a way to stay in the negotiations.

“So this has been a constructive week, but we still understand that there are political decisions that both sides will have to make sometime next week, and we hope that they’ll make the right decision,” he said.

Abbas’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Palestinian position has remained the same.

“Our position is clear and defined — the whole settlement activity has to stop to give direct negotiations the chance that they deserve,” he said. “The key to direct negotiations is in the hands of Netanyahu.”

Ahead of the Cairo 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.

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