After Abbas-Mitchell meeting, some optimism about launching direct Israeli-Palestinian talks

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The White House's Mideast envoy failed Tuesday to secure Palestinian agreement to go to direct talks with Israel, but U.S. and Palestinian officials said a possible solution to the standoff is emerging.

The U.S. has been calling for a speedy resumption of face-to-face negotiations, with officials citing Sept. 1 as a target date.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants agreement first on a framework, agenda and timeline for negotiations, including Israel's acceptance of a Palestinian state that would include the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, with minor adjustments. Abbas also wants an Israeli settlement construction freeze in those territories, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says direct talks should begin immediately without any conditions, but has refused to give any guarantees on what he is prepared to offer. He has only agreed to a limited curb on settlement construction.

On Tuesday, U.S. envoy George Mitchell was unable to reach agreement on the terms of direct talks in a three-hour meeting with Abbas. However, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley characterized Mitchell's talks as "serious and positive."

"We're pushing the parties to agree to direct negotiations and we think after today's meeting, we are closer to reaching that point than we were yesterday," Crowley said in Washington.

Abbas and Mitchell spent much of their time discussing one particular way out of the impasse, said an Abbas aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the content of the meeting to reporters.

Under that proposal, Israelis and Palestinians would recognize a March 19 statement by the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — as the basis for negotiations. In the statement, the Quartet said a peace deal should be reached within two years and end the occupation that began in 1967.

Crowley said that "if a Quartet statement can be helpful in encouraging the parties to move forward, obviously, I think that's something that we the United States support."

Mitchell was to meet Wednesday with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In Washington, a U.S. official suggested it was possible that an announcement about direct talks could be made as early as Wednesday after Mitchell sees Netanyahu and Barak. He said the Quartet could issue an invitation to direct talks after the Mitchell-Netanyahu meeting.

"We're almost there," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy.

The official said preliminary plans call for the direct talks to be held in either the United States or Egypt with high-level Arab participation, the official said.

After nearly two decades of intermittent, inconclusive talks, the Palestinians are wary of entering open-ended negotiations.

An Israeli slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank ends Sept. 26 after 10 months, and Netanyahu has signaled that he will not extend it. Netanyahu also opposes freezing construction of Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, the sector the Palestinians hope will be their capital, though an unofficial Israeli slowdown has been in place for several months.

Direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, broke off in 2008.

Since May, Mitchell has been shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu, but has made little headway.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been pushing hard to move to direct talks. Mitchell has told Abbas that President Barack Obama could only help the Palestinians get their state once negotiations begin.

Abbas told reporters at his headquarters on Monday that the U.S. push is unprecedented in its intensity. "We have never been under as much pressure as in these days," Abbas said.

Also Tuesday, the Israeli military said it will ease some restrictions on Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Israel during the monthlong Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which is to begin Wednesday. Devout Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor.

The Israeli military said Palestinian men over 50 and women over 45 would be able to pray at Jerusalem's holiest Muslim shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, without obtaining special entry permits.

Normally, all West Bank Palestinians must apply for permits to enter Israel, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The military also said it would extend opening hours of some crossings between the West Bank and Israel.

It added that Israeli soldiers have been told to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during Ramadan, especially at crossings.

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Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.