JERUSALEM // Washington's special Middle East envoy launched a last-ditch push today to wring an Israeli promise to curtail settlement construction and persuade the Palestinians to attend a high-profile US meeting meant as a prelude to peacemaking. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said he would not resume official talks with Israel unless settlement construction comes to a total halt.
Aides have said, however, that he might agree to an informal sit-down with Netanyahu next week on the sidelines of a UN meeting in New York. Mr Mitchell met first with the Israeli prime minister Mr Netanyahu today, a day after the Israeli leader rejected US calls for a settlement freeze. Mr Netanyahu said plans to build nearly 3,000 new apartments in the West Bank will remain on course and there will be no restrictions on expanding Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem.
Palestinians claim both areas for a future state that would also include the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Mr Netanyahu reiterated his willingness to suspend for a limited time any other new construction in the West Bank, hoping that will be enough of an overture for the Americans and the Palestinians. But that trade-off hasn't elicited much enthusiasm in either quarter. As they entered their meeting, Mr Mitchell expressed hope of bringing "this phase of our discussions to early conclusion" and to "move forward in our common search for comprehensive peace in the region".
After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, Mr Netanyahu's office put out a statement that said the talks were "good" and that the two men would hold an unscheduled second session on Wednesday morning. Mr Mitchell hopes in his meetings with Netanyahu, and later on Tuesday with Mr Abbas, to bridge the differences and set the stage for the first encounter between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since Mr Netanyahu took office in March.
Both will be in New York next week for the opening of the US General Assembly, and there has been speculation that Mr Obama would join an Abbas-Netanyahu meeting. Israeli officials said today that President Shimon Peres met clandestinely with the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem last week to try to pressure the Palestinians to meet with Mr Netanyahu. An Abbas-Netanyahu meeting would not necessarily signal a watershed. Israel and the Palestinians have held multiple rounds of talks without producing an accord ending decades of conflict. And this time things could be even tougher.
Mr Netanyahu grudgingly has accepted the concept of Palestinian statehood - but only under intense heavy US pressure and with conditions the Palestinians reject. *AP