US envoy aims to renew Israeli-Palestinian talks

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy on Friday played down Israel's rejection of U.S. calls for a halt to construction in east Jerusalem, saying that Washington remains undeterred in its push to renew peace talks.

George Mitchell held separate talks Friday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to find common ground. However, the gaps remain so wide that the U.S. has struggled to launch even indirect talks, in which Mitchell would shuttle between the two sides.

The Palestinians balk at engaging in so-called proximity talks unless Israel pledges not to start new construction for Jews in east Jerusalem, the traditionally Arab sector of the city the Palestinians want as a future capital.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Washington's calls for a halt to new settlements in east Jerusalem and has seen tensions with Israel's most important ally rise dramatically on his watch.

Going into his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday evening, Mitchell said the U.S. would not be deterred.

"Comprehensive peace in the region will not be just a dream," he said. "It must be and can be a reality. We want to make that reality happen, and soon, not in some vague and distant future time."

Despite the challenges, the U.S. would persevere "until we reach our common goal" of Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, he said.

Earlier, Netanyahu told Mitchell that Israel would be a constructive partner.

"I look forward to working with the Obama administration to move peace forward," Netanyahu said. "We are serious about it, we know you are serious about it and we hope the Palestinians respond."

The prime minister's office said the meeting went well and Netanyahu and Mitchell would convene again on Sunday.

Netanyahu said in a televised interview Thursday that there would be no construction freeze in east Jerusalem, repeating a position that has brought him into conflict with Obama.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967, and the area is now home to around 180,000 Jews and 250,000 Palestinians. Israel sees the eastern sector of the city as part of its capital, while Palestinians want it for their own capital.

Nonetheless, Israeli government officials said Friday they were optimistic that indirect negotiations between the sides would be announced during Mitchell's visit, allowing Israelis and Palestinians to begin negotiating again for the first time since late 2008.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the government made no formal statement on what the talks with Mitchell were expected to cover.

The Palestinians have said they will not hold direct negotiations with Israel as long as construction continues in Israel's West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem. The indirect talks, in which Mitchell is expected to shuttle between the sides as a mediator, are designed to allow the Palestinians to resume negotiations without officially dropping their demands.

But they also show the extent to which the sides — who had been talking directly for nearly two decades — have become estranged.

Netanyahu has curbed building in the West Bank but has said repeatedly that no restrictions will apply in east Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat criticized Netanyahu's newest statement on Jerusalem.

"We should give the proximity talks the chance they deserve, but at the same time, it is evident after Mr. Netanyahu's statements last night that this Israeli government is determined to continue the course of settlements, dictation and confrontation and not peace and reconciliation," he said.

Palestinians will begin indirect talks, Erekat said, if Israel agrees not to initiate new construction projects in Jerusalem and cancels plans for 1,600 new housing units in an east Jerusalem neighborhood. The announcement that those units had been approved was made during a visit to Israel in March by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and angered the Obama administration.

Direct talks will only be possible if Israel freezes all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, he said.


Additional reporting by Matti Friedman in Jerusalem.