US envoy meets Israel PM as peace talks gather pace

JERUSALEM, May 20, 2010 (AFP) - US envoy George Mitchell met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday as "proximity talks" with the Palestinians launched earlier this month began to gather pace.

A US official confirmed the meeting in Jerusalem had begun but declined to provide any further details. Mitchell has kept a low profile on previous visits and had no immediate plans to speak to the media.

Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu will offer a package of goodwill gestures to encourage the Palestinians to proceed to direct talks, which they have refused in the absence of a total freeze on Israeli settlement building.

The gestures are said to include the release of prisoners, the lifting of some more roadblocks in the West Bank and the expansion of those parts of the territory under limited Palestinian self-rule.

Israeli media have also said Israel plans to free up land currently allocated to settlements in order to build a road linking a large-scale planned Palestinian community to the West Bank political capital of Ramallah.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the meeting or the reports.

Mitchell met Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday and was given letters of protest against the killing of a Palestinian teenager in the West Bank, allegedly by an Israeli settler, and the killing of an elderly farmer in Gaza by the Israeli military near the heavily guarded border.

The letters also addressed "the numerous Israeli provocative statements of the last few days," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said, referring to statements by Netanyahu and other officials that settlement construction would continue in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Mitchell plans to shuttle between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah as part of the indirect peace talks launched on May 9.

The negotiations were first agreed in March but the initiative collapsed within days when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 settler homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.

The Palestinians eventually agreed to enter the talks after receiving US assurances that the project would be frozen.

Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the Holy City its "eternal and indivisible" capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

The last round of direct negotiations between the two sides collapsed in December 2008 when Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire aimed at Israeli towns.

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