US and Israel resume talks on settlement deal

TRILATERAL MEETING:The US envoy hoped to arrange a meeting next week involving Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas


Sat, Sep 19, 2009 - Page 6

US and Israeli officials began a third meeting in Jerusalem yesterday to try to reach agreement on a West Bank settlement freeze that could restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

George Mitchell, US President Barack Obama’s special Middle East envoy, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to break an 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 UN 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 US-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’ 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 US-Israeli relations in a decade.