The US envoy to the Middle East was heading to Israel today to try to rescue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brought to the brink of collapse by the resumption of West Bank settlement building.
George Mitchell’s latest mission comes as the United States, which is brokering the talks launched on September 2, tries to prevent a walkout by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who says there is no point talking if Israel keeps building settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Late yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks by telephone described by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley as “very significant, very detailed, very direct”.
Crowley told reporters in Washington the talks built on the pair’s discussions a day earlier, which had centred on the expiry at midnight on Sunday of a 10-month moratorium on the building of new settler homes in the West Bank.
“The prime minister understands what our policies are. We understand his ongoing political difficulties,” Crowley said.
“We believe he’s sincerely interested in the process, recognises its importance.”
Netanyahu’s refusal to renew the moratorium has thrown the peace talks into jeopardy and has drawn widespread international criticism, including from the US, Britain, the European Union, France and the United Nations.
As bulldozers across the West Bank roared to life on Monday, Abbas said he would consult his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organisation this week and meet with Arab foreign ministers on October 4.
“After all these meetings we may be able to issue a position to clarify what is the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this matter,” Abbas said.
The Palestinians have called on Israel to extend the moratorium for three to four months so that the two sides can reach an agreement on final borders that would clarify where Israel can continue building.
Netanyahu has refused to renew the partial freeze, but has urged Abbas to stick with the talks, which were relaunched after a 20-month hiatus.
Crowley announced that Mitchell was on his way to the region late yesterday.
“We recognise that given the decision yesterday we still have a dilemma to resolve,” he said. “One way or the other the parties have to find a way to continue direct negotiations.
He praised Abbas for not immediately backing out of the negotiations, saying his “restraint at this point is appreciated”.
Israel’s hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, said Palestinian negotiators had “wasted time” during the settlement moratorium but added that it was important to “keep the political process alive”.
For “nine months the Palestinians wasted time and completely refused to accept this gesture and accused Israel that it’s a fraud, it’s not serious,” Lieberman said after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“And today they are exerting pressure to maintain the same moratorium that they previously rejected,” he told reporters in New York.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, called on Abbas to stand by his threat to end the negotiations, which the Islamist movement has always vehemently rejected.
“I call on my brothers at the Palestinian Authority, who had stated they would not pursue talks with the enemy (Israel) if it continued settlement construction, to hold to their promise,” its exiled chief Khaled Meshaal said.
Yesterday, settlement construction was under way in several settlements across the West Bank.
There was no major construction taking place, in part because of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, during which Jews are not supposed to work.
And just before the freeze ended, Netanyahu urged settlers to display “restraint and responsibility”.
The Palestinians have long deplored the presence of 500 000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, lands expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.
The international community views all settlements as illegal.