Mitchell meets Abbas as Israel pushes for recognition

US envoy George Mitchell has met with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank, a day after Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said that a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was a precondition for Mideast peace talks.


AFP - US special envoy George Mitchell met Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Friday amid warnings that peace talks will remain stagnant unless Israel's new government commits to a two-state solution.

"Until the (Benjamin) Netanyahu government unequivocally affirms its support for the two-state solution, implements Israel’s roadmap obligations and abides by previous agreements, Palestinians have no partner for peace," top negotiator Saeb Erakat said after the meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Mitchell emerged from the talks reiterating "the two-state solution is the only solution" and that "a comprehensive peace in the region is in the US national interest."

The largely right-wing cabinet of Israel's hawkish prime minister has distanced itself from past governments' support for the US-backed concept of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and has called previous agreements into question.

Mitchell and Abbas both "emphasised the shared commitment of the (President Barack) Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership to the two-state solution," Erakat said in a statement.

The Abbas-Mitchell talks came after meetings in Jerusalem on Thursday that highlighted the rift between the United States and Israel over the Middle East peace process.

While Mitchell stressed the US commitment to a two-state solution, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel's government needed time to come up with a new approach as the peace process had "reached a dead end."

Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel expected the Palestinians "to recognise the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people."

Palestinians angrily rejected that demand, which Erakat stressed does not figure in any peace treaty and does not conform with international law.

"Netanyahu’s new 'condition' serves no other purpose than to stall progress towards negotiations, and to save his government from having to deal with the real issues," he said.

Erakat named the issues as "Israel’s refusal to end its occupation, to freeze all settlement activity, to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement, and to unequivocally support the two-state solution."

For Palestinians, recognising Israel as a Jewish state would amount to abandoning the right to return of refugees, a key issue in the peace talks.

The contrasting positions highlighted the risk that Israel could be on a collision course with its most important ally, as Washington insists on the principle of a Palestinian state and Netanyahu refuses to endorse the plan.

But Israeli media stressed that Mitchell willingly gave Netanyahu's government six to eight more weeks to formulate its policy, in inviting the prime minister to meet with Obama in May.

"It is possible that a crisis with the American administration is on its way, and the route is leading to a collision, but for now the situation is under control," the Maariv daily said.

Netanyahu says that the economy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank must improve before any other steps are taken in the faltering peace process.

Lieberman also sparked concerns by declaring when he assumed office that the new cabinet was not bound by a US-backed 2007 agreement to relaunch talks with the Palestinians.

Israel has committed itself to the principle of a Palestinian state under the 2003 international "roadmap" for peace, which included a series of steps for Israelis and Palestinians to follow, eventually resulting in negotiations over core issues and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The plan has made little progress since its launch by the Middle East Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

Mitchell who arrived in Israel on Wednesday, was due to fly on to Cairo. A former US senator, Mitchell played a key role in reaching the 1998 Good Friday accords that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.


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