Middle East

U.S. Envoy Schedules Another Round of Mideast Peace Meetings

Sept. 27: A young Jewish settler looks at earth-moving equipment at a construction site in the West Bank.

Sept. 27: A young Jewish settler looks at earth-moving equipment at a construction site in the West Bank.  (AP)

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A U.S. emissary racing against the clock to salvage Mideast peace negotiations scheduled another quick round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders after talks Thursday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended inconclusively.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are deadlocked over Israeli settlement construction. Earlier this week, Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month-old moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements. Abbas has warned he'll quit U.S.-sponsored peace talks unless the moratorium is extended.

Abbas' final decision is expected Wednesday, when Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo. The U.S. is preceding that meeting with diplomatic efforts toward Arab governments, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington Thursday.

"We're talking to other governments in the region about how to support the leaders as they work through these difficult issues and make difficult decisions in the coming days," Crowley aid. "We're doing everything we can to keep this moving forward."

Underscoring the sense of urgency, Europe's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, rushed to the region for talks with Abbas and Netanyahu on Thursday and Friday.

And in what could be seen as encouragement and cover for the talks to proceed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in a statement Wednesday that "the moment of truth" had arrived for those seeking to resolve the conflict and that "the consequences of failure this time are too catastrophic to imagine."

He called on Israel to freeze its settlements, which he said, "aim to change facts on the ground and thus jeopardize the peace process and render the negotiations meaningless."

White House emissary George Mitchell met with Abbas for two hours at his West Bank headquarters on Thursday. After the meeting, Mitchell said the U.S. was "determined to continue, and we are continuing, our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue."

Mitchell, who has been shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians since Tuesday to try to forge a compromise, did not mention the settlement issue.

Mitchell will meet again separately with Netanyahu and Abbas on Friday, Crowley said.

Before Thursday's meeting, Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath said no progress has been made toward a compromise.

"Apparently the Israelis are determined to swallow and steal the land and consider that much more important than peace," Shaath told The Associated Press. "Unless the settlement activities stop completely, there is no use in continuing these negotiations."

Netanyahu apparently fears renewing the settlement curb could fracture his pro-settlement coalition. The Palestinians argue that there is no point negotiating as long as settlements gobble up land they want for a future state. Various compromises have been considered, including limiting new construction to major settlement blocs, but Shaath said only a full settlement freeze would suffice.

The Arab League meeting was initially scheduled for Monday, but was put off until Wednesday. An Arab diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggested the meeting was delayed because some ministers asked for further discussions to forge a unified Arab position.