US, European diplomats push to save Mideast talks
RAMALLAH, West Bank — US and European peace envoys pleaded with Israel yesterday 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 gained 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 yesterday, 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel earlier yesterday. 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 will quit US-sponsored peace talks unless the moratorium is extended.
But Netanyahu has refused, for fear of angering his hard-line coalition partners and reneging on his explicit promises that the slowdown was a one-time gesture and would last only 10 months.
The United States 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 United States 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.
Abbas’s 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.