TEL AVIV // George Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East this week appeared yesterday to have failed. Despite a fourth meeting in four days between the top US envoy to the Middle East and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, no deal was clinched between the US and Israel on a halt to settlement construction in occupied territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state.
The setback in negotiations was a blow to Washington's hopes of convening a tripartite summit on the sidelines of next week's UN General Assembly in New York between Barack Obama, the US president, Mr Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority. Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator, told reporters yesterday following a meeting between Mr Mitchell and Mr Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah: "Mitchell told us he did not reach agreement with the Israelis on freezing settlements."
Mr Erekat said that because of Israel's opposition to a total freeze on settlement activity, Mr Abbas said he would not take part in the three-way summit. An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, appeared to blame the Palestinians for the deadlock yesterday, saying: "The Israeli side is ready for the immediate resumption of talks. That is not the Palestinian position. At this stage no trilateral meeting in New York has been finalised."
Asked if negotiations will continue, the official added: "The process continues. No one is giving up." Mr Mitchell has kept busy since arriving in the Middle East last Saturday. He has shuttled at least twice between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and has also travelled to Cairo to meet Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he convened with King Abdullah. Mr Netanyahu's meeting with the US envoy yesterday came just hours after the Israeli premier made clear there would be no construction freeze in the West Bank. He also reiterated that work would continue on some 3,000 housing units even in the case of a compromise with the US on the settlements.
In an interview with Israel's Channel 10 TV on Thursday, the Israeli leader said: "For me, a freeze of settlements is zero construction of housing units. I do not want to choose the name - any person knows that there will probably be a slowdown in building, but not a freeze." Mr Netanyahu also said that so far, "no summit meeting has been set" with Mr Obama and Mr Abbas in New York for next week.
However, he hoped there would be a meeting. "We have reached a level of intimacy in talks with the Americans in which they understand the details of the policy that I have suggested," he said. "Advancing peace is important, but we also have the responsibility for Israeli citizens and our brothers in [the West Bank] to allow them to live normal lives." While Mr Netanyahu appears reluctant to agree to a construction lull that would be opposed by his predominantly pro-settler, right-wing governing coalition, he has signalled that he is prepared to make compromises.
Yesterday, an official close to the premier who declined to be identified was quoted by Israeli media as saying that Israel might agree to a freeze beyond the six months it had so far offered. The US has pressed Israel to suspend settlement activity for at least one year. Mr Abbas, however, is holding firm that only a total halt to construction will spur him to renew negotiations. Some officials of Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement, which holds sway in the West Bank, claim that restarting talks with Israel without suspending settlement expansion will hand a victory to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that rivals Fatah and rules the Gaza Strip.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Mr Abbas, warned in an interview yesterday with Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, that a settlement deal that did not include a total freeze might even spur violence among Palestinians. "We will not be able to agree to the continuation of building in East Jerusalem while conducting peace talks with Israel at the same time If we agree to an offer that gives legitimacy to construction in Jerusalem, that may lead to a breakout of a third intifada - this time against the Palestinian Authority, not against Israel," Mr Rabbo said.
A deal may also be impeded by the release of a damning UN report on Tuesday, which claimed Israeli forces committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during the country's onslaught in the Gaza Strip in December and January. Israeli commentators said yesterday the report's findings may make it more difficult for Mr Mitchell to convince Arab states to make gestures towards normalising ties with Israel - overtures that Mr Mitchell had hoped would help push Israel to compromise on the settlements.