TEL AVIV // The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, met Washington's Middle East envoy yesterday in a bid to revive peace talks, even as Israel's razing of Palestinian homes and approval of new Jewish settler houses in East Jerusalem appeared likely to deepen the rift between the two sides.
Mr Abbas convened with George Mitchell at the PA's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah for almost three hours. Mr Abbas's aides said the discussion included the Palestinians' request for US guarantees, such as an Israeli settlement freeze, before they would agree to return to any peace talks.
Speaking a week after Washington admitted failure in securing an Israeli moratorium on settlement building that would have revived direct negotiations, Mr Mitchell conceded that the US is facing challenges in its mediation role but would continue in its efforts.
"As we expected, there had been many difficulties, obstacles and setbacks along the way. We accept it, but we are determined to persevere in our efforts until we reach the successful conclusion that I think we all want," he told reporters after meeting Mr Abbas.
The Palestinian leader is due to meet Arab League foreign ministers today in Cairo about the next steps in the peace process, his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said.
But tensions between Israel and the Palestinians seemed likely to heighten after Israeli authorities, accompanied by dozens of police, destroyed two Palestinian homes under construction in East Jerusalem that they claimed had no permit.
Witnesses told Agence France-Presse that a bulldozer destroyed a single-storey building in the southern Sur Bahir neighbourhood, although it was unoccupied at the time. Another smaller and also uninhabited structure was razed in the Ras al Amud neighbourhood near the Mount of Olives, AFP reported.
Many Palestinians build homes in East Jerusalem without permits because such authorisations are extremely difficult for them to obtain from the Jerusalem municipality. Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, have accused Israeli authorities of preventing Arab residents of the city from legally constructing homes out of political considerations.
Israel views East Jerusalem as part of its capital and Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing prime minister, has insisted he will oppose giving up parts of the holy city. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed it in a move that was never recognised by the international community.
Also yesterday, Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group, said that the Jerusalem municipality had approved the construction of 24 housing units in four buildings for Jewish settlers in the midst of the Palestinian neighbourhood of As Suwwana, just east of Jerusalem's Old City. Hagit Ofran, a director at Peace Now, said that Jerusalem's building and planning committee had given the go-ahead to a group affiliated with Elad, a settler movement that has acted aggressively to set up Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.
The White House is trying to return Israelis and Palestinians to indirect negotiations after its bid to continue face-to-face talks came to naught just three weeks after they were re-launched on September 2. The attempt failed because Israel rejected the Palestinian demand to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank for another three months after a previous 10-month moratorium expired on September 26.
Palestinian Authority officials said yesterday that the talks between Mr Mitchell and Mr Abbas focused on a letter that Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, handed last week in Washington to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, asking for a series of US pledges before any US-mediated shuttle diplomacy is resumed.
The letter demanded a complete stop to Israeli building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It also urged the US to either recognise the creation of a Palestinian state within the territory captured by Israel in 1967, or not hinder the Palestinians from seeking such recognition from the United Nations Security Council.
The Palestinians have also said in recent days that they want Washington to produce an outline for clear terms of reference for the negotiations, their likely duration and the role the US will play in the talks.
Late on Monday, Mr Mitchell met with Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem, just hours after the Israeli premier called the issue of Jewish settlement growth "marginal" to the peace talks.
Mr Netanyahu, speaking to reporters during a visit to the country's north, said the two had spoken "about ways to advance the peace process, because that is Israel's aim".