Ali Sawafta
September 30, 2010 - 12:00am

U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Thursday stepped up the pace of efforts to save Middle East peace talks launched four weeks ago, saying he was seeking common ground to avert their collapse.

Former Senator Mitchell was speaking after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who says he will pull out of the talks unless Israel extends a freeze on new building in Jewish West Bank settlements, which expired this week.

"We are continuing our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue," he said. "We think it's important for the Palestinian people, for the people of Israel, and we think it's in the United States' interest and indeed the interests of people around the world that this conflict of long standing be brought to an end."

The Palestinians say the growth of the settlements, built on land Israel has occupied since 1967, will render impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- the stated goal of the peace talks.

Israel calls the West Bank "Judea and Samaria" -- land where the Jews trace their biblical history. Mitchell met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, saying the United States was "determined more than ever" to achieve Middle East peace.

Netanyahu has also urged that the "positive" negotiations he has held with Abbas since direct talks resumed must go on.

Direct talks resumed on Sep. 2 after a 20-month suspension.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in Ramallah that Mitchell would be back to see Abbas on Friday after talks with Netanyahu.

"We are exerting every possible effort in order to ensure that the senator succeeds in his mission in maintaining the direct negotiations," Erekat said.

"We are not against direct negotiations. On the contrary we want to see to it that we reach an endgame, end of conflict, a permanent status solution" leading to a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, he added.

He again urged Israel to halt all settlement activities.


Abbas has said he would hold off on a decision on the fate of the talks until the Arab League can discuss the issue at a meeting in Cairo next week and reach a consensus.

The meeting of the League's committee on the peace process had been scheduled for Monday Oct. 4 but one Arab League source said it was now postponed until Wednesday Oct. 6.

That would give Mitchell another precious two days to try to bridge the negotiating gap. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Abbas on Thursday to lend EU support for the continuation of the talks.

The European Union is part of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators, along with the United States, Russia and the United Nations. But the United States is seen as the only power capable of bringing pressure to bear on both sides.

The talks were plunged into crisis after a 10-month moratorium ordered by Netanyahu on new housing construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied territory expired on Monday.

Netanyahu, whose governing coalition is dominated by pro-settler parties including his own right-wing Likud, rebuffed calls by U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders to extend the partial freeze.

Close to half a million Jews live on territory where the Palestinians aim to establish their state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, which is chaired by Abbas, will convene in Ramallah on Saturday to discuss the fate of the peace talks, PLO officials said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017