Mideast peacemakers push Israel on settlements, 3rd round of talks still not set

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Quartet of Mideast peacemakers shepherding the newly started direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations called on Israel to extend its settlement freeze past Sunday, while cautioning both sides to refrain from "provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric."

Senior diplomats from the Quartet — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — met on the sidelines of the United Nations anti-poverty meeting to discuss a way forward in the negotiations, which have made little visible progress since they resumed earlier this month and are at risk of collapse.

They renewed a vow to help finally achieve peace in the Middle East.

George Mitchell, the Obama administration's envoy for Middle East peace, met Tuesday with Israeli and Palestinian officials, including one three-way session with each side's top negotiators, according to U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. But there was no sign that either side was ready to commit to a new round of direct talks.

In a statement issued after its meeting, the Quartet said that the "commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation." It encouraged both sides to continue negotiating "in a constructive manner and urged the international community to support their efforts."

Earlier, the Quartet abruptly canceled a press conference that was to have included Mitchell, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A senior European official who declined to be identified said the meeting with the press was canceled because other participants were insisting on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's presence among them. The senior official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations.

Crowley said Clinton had never intended to attend the news conference, and that the U.S. had decided that Mitchell would speak for the Obama administration. He declined to comment on whether other delegations had tried to persuade her to go. "We were prepared to have George Mitchell participate in the press event had it occurred," he said.

U.S. and U.N. officials insisted the press conference was canceled for technical reasons, owing to an electrical outage, and hotly denied that the cancellation reflected any problems with the negotiations.

"There was no disagreement. The news conference was canceled because of the technical problems in the room and building, and because the meeting started late," Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told AP.

From their meeting, the Quartet principals went into talks with officials from the Arab League at which they sought to encourage continued support from the Palestinians' neighbors in reaching a peace accord, Crowley said.

At the end of the closed-door meeting with ministers from key Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said it was a "very good" session.

But on the key issue of whether Israel will extend a partial ban on settlement building in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want for a future state, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon indicated that Israel disagrees with the view that construction is a major impediment to the talks.

"Settlements have never been an issue, because once we agree on borders everything will be obvious, so let's concentrate on the real issues and not just put the obstacle in the settlements," he told reporters on the sidelines of the Quartet's talks.

The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the peace talks if the settlement slowdown — due to expire next week — is not extended.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also said France was exerting "pressure and talking to our friends on both sides" in hopes Israel would prolong the settlement freeze, which expires Sunday.

"We need that. Otherwise, the Palestinians were very clear — they will stop the negotiations and the dialogue...," he said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres met privately late Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a hotel across from the U.N. complex. They spoke briefly to reporters but did not discuss particulars about the recently renewed Mideast talks, including the key issue of would extend the partial ban on.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama said an outright halt to settlement building was a necessary first step, although his administration has since softened that demand.