Mitchell seeks Israeli settlement deal in talks with Netanyahu, Abbas

US special envoy George Mitchell (photo) was to seek a deal on divisive West Bank settlements in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. Mitchell will hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day.


AFP - US envoy George Mitchell opened talks with Israel's prime minister on Tuesday, aiming for a deal on West Bank settlements to pave the way for a resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks.

Mitchell met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and was to hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the occupied West Bank in the evening.

The thorny issue of Israeli settlements on occupied Arab land was to top the agenda.

Mitchell is seeking Israel's agreement to some kind of a moratorium on construction that would be acceptable to the Palestinians to resume negotiations which were suspended in late December amid the Gaza war.

"We share your sense of urgency" for the talks to resume before the end of September, Mitchell said on Sunday after meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

"It is our intention to conclude this phase of our discussions in the very near future, within the timeframes that you suggest, to enable us to move on to the next and really the more important phase," Mitchell said.

"While we have not yet reached agreement on many outstanding issues, we are working hard to do so, and indeed the purpose of my visits here this week is to attempt to do so," he said.

Washington has been demanding for months that Israel halt all settlement activity in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, but hawkish Netanyahu has so far refused and the Palestinians are insisting on such a moratorium to resume peace talks.

Mitchell has been seeking to hammer out a compromise that would pave the way for a three-way meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly later this month.

A compromise could see Israel agree to a temporary halt of anywhere between six months and a year, would exclude east Jerusalem and would allow for some 2,500 housing units already under construction to be completed, according to media.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank and mostly Arab east Jerusalem are a key obstacle in the Middle East conflict. They are considered illegal by the international community although they are home to half a million Israelis.

Obama's administration is working toward a comprehensive peace package that would see Israel strike deals with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, and the Arab states normalise relations with the Jewish state after more than 60 years of conflict.

The Israelis and Palestinians resumed their peace negotiations in November 2007 after a nearly seven-year hiatus, but the talks made little visible progress and were suspended in late December after Israel launched a war in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

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