US envoy in shuttle diplomacy for settlement deal

JERUSALEM, Sept 18, 2009 (AFP) - US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders again on Friday, trying to wrest a deal on settlements ahead of the UN General Assembly next week.

The former US senator huddled for two hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem for a third time this week and was then to head to the West Bank for his second meeting in just days with president Mahmud Abbas.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell (R) speaks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit as they exit the presidential palace following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on September 17, 2009 (AFP photo)

No statement was released at the end of the Netanyahu meeting, but Israeli sources said that Mitchell was due to return to Jerusalem for more talks after his meeting with Abbas.

In the meantime, Netanyahu was to meet with a handful of the most important ministers in his cabinet, they said.

Mitchell is aiming to get some kind of an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction that would be acceptable to the Palestinians and enable the resumption of peace talks that were suspended in late December amid a devastating Israeli offensive on Gaza.

An agreement on settlements could pave the way for a three-way meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly next week.

Netanyahu said late on Wednesday that it was far from clear whether such a meeting would take place.

"The three-way meeting has not been set yet. But I'll go anyway and give my speech" at the General Assembly, he told reporters.

Mitchell has been in the region for nearly a week, urging all parties to "take responsibility" for peace amid US efforts to secure a comprehensive regional deal to resolve the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The United States is asking all the parties, Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to take responsibility for peace through actions that will help create a positive context for the relaunch of negotiations," he said on Thursday after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But he has faced an uphill task in the face of Israel's refusal to cede to US demands that it freeze construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank including annexed east Jerusalem -- a move on which the Palestinians insist in order to resume peace talks.

On Monday, Netanyahu repeated he had no intention of implementing a complete freeze, saying any halt would be temporary, would not extend to east Jerusalem and would exclude some 2,500 units already under construction.

Mitchell said at the start of his latest tour that the United States shared a "sense of urgency" for peace talks to resume before the end of September.

Standing in the way are Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land -- home to half a million Israelis, viewed as illegal by the international community and a key obstacle to reaching a peace deal.

Obama's administration has been working towards a comprehensive peace package that would see Israel strike deals with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, and Arab countries normalise relations with the Jewish state.

Israelis and Palestinians resumed negotiations in November 2007 after a nearly seven-year hiatus, but the talks made little visible progress and were suspended in late December after Israel launched its war in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Source: AFP

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