US envoy fails to secure Palestinian agreement for going to direct talks with Israel

By Mohammed Daraghmeh, AP
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

US envoy falls short on latest Mideast mission

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The White House’s Mideast envoy failed Tuesday to secure Palestinian agreement to go to direct talks with Israel, despite mounting pressure from the U.S. administration to begin negotiations in early September.

Even so, a U.S. official sounded somewhat optimistic that direct talks could start next month.

The U.S. has been calling for a speedy resumption of face-to-face negotiations, which broke down in December 2008. On Monday, U.S. officials said that American envoy George Mitchell, who has been mediating indirect negotiations for three months, was pressing for direct talks to start by Sept. 1.

But after a three-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mitchell left empty-handed and said that he would continue his efforts and return to the region soon, referring to “difficulties and obstacles” the sides are facing.

Abbas wants agreement first on a framework, agenda and timeline for negotiations, including Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state that would include the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, with minor adjustments. The Palestinians are also demanding a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction in areas they claim for their future state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says direct talks should begin immediately without any conditions, but has refused to give any guarantees on what he is prepared to offer.

Mitchell is to meet with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday.

In Washington, a U.S. official briefed on Mitchell’s meeting with Abbas said the talks had gone “very well.”

The official suggested it was possible that an announcement about direct talks could be made as early as Wednesday after Mitchell sees Netanyahu and Barak. “We’re almost there,” the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy.

The official said the administration’s goal is to get the two sides to sit down face-to-face on or before Sept. 1. Preliminary plans call for the direct talks to be held in either the United States or Egypt with high-level Arab participation, the official said.

After nearly two decades of intermittent, inconclusive talks, the Palestinians are wary of entering open-ended negotiations.

An Israeli slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank ends Sept. 26 after 10 months, and Netanyahu has signaled that he will not extend the measure. Netanyahu also opposes freezing construction of Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, the sector the Palestinians hope will be their capital, though an unofficial Israeli slowdown has been in place for several months.

Direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, broke off in 2008.

Since May, Mitchell has been shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu, but has made little headway.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been pushing hard to move to direct talks. Mitchell has told Abbas that President Barack Obama could only help the Palestinians get their state once negotiations begin.

Abbas told reporters at his headquarters on Monday that the U.S. push is unprecedented in its intensity. “We have never been under as much pressure as in these days,” Abbas said.

Also Tuesday, the Israeli military said it will ease some restrictions on Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Israel during the monthlong Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which is to begin Wednesday or Thursday. Devout Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor.

The Israeli military said Palestinian men over 50 and women over 45 would be able to pray at Jerusalem’s holiest Muslim shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, without obtaining special entry permits.

Normally, all West Bank Palestinians must apply for permits to enter Israel, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The military also said it would extend opening hours of some crossings between the West Bank and Israel.

It added that Israeli soldiers have been told to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during Ramadan, especially at crossings.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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